Oxford University will use a record donation to abolish the tuition fee increase for its poorest students – keeping fees at £3,500 per year.

In a bid to remove financial barriers, eligible students will also receive funding for all their living costs. With matched funding, a £75m donation from Michael Moritz and his wife Harriet Heyman is set to rise to £300m. This is being claimed as the biggest such financial support package in European university history.

At the launch of the scholarships, Oxford’s vice-chancellor, Andrew Hamilton, spoke of the importance of “ensuring that all barriers – real or perceived – are removed from students’ choices”.

University self-supporting

Mr Moritz, chairman of the US-based venture capital firm, Sequoia Capital, spoke of his own family’s debt to benefactors, when they had been refugees from Nazi Germany.

“I would not be here today were it not for the generosity of strangers,” said Mr Moritz.

From his business experience in the US, he said many of the great innovators were from “the most unlikely and impossible circumstances”. But their progress had been made possible by university scholarships- and he wanted to support such opportunities.

The financial package will be worth about £11,000 per student per year – and will be available for students from families with an income below £16,000 per year.

This will continue in perpetuity – using the investment income from the donation – in a way similar to the endowments that underpin the finances of major US universities. It also marks a UK university taking a greater step towards self-funding some students – and loosening its students’ reliance on the state-funded student finance system.

Under the scholarship scheme, students will only have to borrow the £3,500 per year, rather than the £9,000 which will be charged from this autumn.

Professor Hamilton spoke of his concern about the deterrent effect of the debts facing students, when fees are £9,000 per year. Charlotte Anderson, currently studying German at the university, said she was the first person in her family to go to university – and that debt had been a major cultural obstacle for her family.

“All they saw was a huge debt – and the stress attached to that… they couldn’t see beyond it.”

She said that attending a summer school made her change her mind about seeing Oxford as a credible option.

Reaching out

Jo Dibb, head teacher of Elizabeth Garrett Anderson School in north London, said that poorer parents were often “desperate to support their children” – but couldn’t support their children as easily as better-off families and were afraid of getting into debt. She said the scholarships could help “the brightest young people who slip away now”. Mr Moritz, who went to school in Cardiff and attended Oxford in the 1970s, said that for families with £16,000 per year, the level of student debt represented a “terrifying figure”.

About one in 10 of Oxford’s students are from families with an income below this threshold – and the first wave of scholarships will be awarded this autumn. The intention is that within three years half of all eligible students will receive this support package – with the later aim of rolling it out to all students from such low-income families.

Earlier this week, the university admissions service, Ucas, published figures showing that applications had fallen by 8.9%, raising concerns that potential students were being deterred by the increase in fees.

Last week, the Office for Fair Access published a report showing that universities were switching more of their funding into outreach projects, such as summer schools. The fair access watchdog also produced figures comparing the proportion of students eligible for full state support – with Oxford having among the lowest levels of such poorer students.

The university has been investing heavily to attract students from a wider range of social backgrounds, putting £2.5m into outreach and £6.6m on bursaries. Oxford’s latest announcement of such a large-scale scholarship programme will raise comparisons with leading US universities. The income from endowments allows them to offer places to the most talented, regardless of income or nationality, with means-testing then determining any level of fee.

The biggest source of Harvard’s operating income is its endowments, worth £24bn at present. Fees provide only about a fifth of its operating costs.

Oxford’s biggest source of income is external research, accounting for two-fifths of income. Professor Hamilton said the challenge for UK universities facing budget pressures was to diversify their incomes – including encouraging such philanthropy as the donation from Mr Moritz and Ms Heyman.

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This morning, Oneida Indian Nation Representative Ray Halbritter and other OIN leaders joined the leadership of The American Revolution Center in Washington, D.C. to announce a $10 million gift from the Oneidas to the Center in accordance with the Center’s $40 million Lenfest challenge announced last month.

The gift according to an OIN press release was “made in part to recognize the little known, but extraordinary role the Oneidas played in the Revolutionary War.” It also puts the center a quarter of the way to it’s goal to construct The Museum of the American Revolution.

During America’s War for Independence the hardships and lost lives the colonists endured was shared by the Oneidas who fought in support of them.

“The contributions and tremendous sacrifices of the Oneida people as America’s first ally in the Revolutionary War, resulted in an ongoing friendship and treaty relationship between the Oneida Nation and the United States for more than two centuries” Halbritter said at the presentation. “Our commitment to the American Revolution Center furthers that friendship and ensures that the resilience displayed together by America’s founding fathers and the Oneida people continue to serve as inspiration to everyone who wishes to understand the shared history of the Oneida Nation and America.”

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In a signal of its growing reach into the city’s education sector, the William Penn Foundation will give $15 million to fund innovations in Philadelphia public, private, and charter schools over the next three years.

William Penn has pledged the money to the Philadelphia School Partnership, which will award grants to some schools this month, with other awards coming before the end of the year. It’s a major step forward in the newer nonprofit’s goal of raising $100 million in five years to speed up the pace of educational change.

Although William Penn has traditionally given grants in the “children, youth and families” arena, president Jeremy Nowak told The Inquirer that going forward, the foundation would focus more narrowly on “closing the achievement gap” for low-income students, with an emphasis on global standards.

“This is putting a stake in the ground about the need for great schools,” Nowak said in an interview.

Nowak said the gift would help foster the ideals of the Great Schools Compact, a document recently signed by representatives of the Philadelphia School District, the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, charter school organizations, and city and state officials that pledges to close or overhaul 50,000 seats in “low-performing” schools and replace them with high-quality ones, possibly in charters, in the next five years.

“We love the idea of the compact,” Nowak said. “Close down what doesn’t work, scale up what does work, use good information.”

Janet Haas, a physician and William Penn’s board chair, said the new direction reflected the foundation’s view that “there are few issues more important to our region than closing the achievement gap and reforming Philadelphia’s broken schools.”

“The status quo has failed the children of this city for too long,” Haas said in a statement. “The costs of educational failure are too high. Solutions to Philadelphia’s difficult, long-term education problems are attainable, but they involve significant change, which won’t be easy.”

The moves by William Penn and the Philadelphia School Partnership are in line with the goals of the current School Reform Commission, which has signaled its plans for overhauling the district, closing struggling schools and expanding strong ones.

For the Philadelphia School Partnership, William Penn’s gift is just a start.

Executive director Mark Gleason said Thursday that while William Penn’s $15 million donation was its largest to date, the organization was close to announcing “additional large commitments that will bring us north of $30 million, maybe even north of $40 million,” in its “Great Schools Fund.”

The Philadelphia School Partnership hopes to award between $8 million and $12 million in grants this year, with up to $10 million to $15 million given in subsequent years, said Gleason, whose organization is not yet two years old but is clearly rising in influence.

“We are seriously looking at investments in the public district sector, the public charter sector, and the Catholic sector,” said Gleason, who also facilitates the work of the Great Schools Compact. He said about a dozen applications were being vetted across all those types of schools.

The organization awarded $2.4 million last year to charter providers turning around district schools. Mastery Charter Schools, Aspira Inc. of Pennsylvania, and Universal Cos. Inc. all received funding in 2011 for their “Renaissance schools.”

In some cases, grants of a few hundred thousand dollars will pay for planning for schools that don’t yet exist; in others, the money will help new schools ready to open but in need of capital to buy computers, secure a building, or train staff, for instance; in still others, the money will help strong existing schools expand.

“We’re trying to raise $100 million, and if we do, we can have a direct impact on a large number of students – we’re scaling reform,” Gleason said. “Even more important, potentially, is that if we can raise $100 million from a broad cross-section of funders that cuts across traditional political and ideological boundaries, we think we can help to change the dialogue in Philadelphia away from the tension and rivalries between different kinds of schools and into a more collaborative focus on how we can all work together to make sure we have lots of good school options.”

In a city where there has historically been great tension, particularly between public and charter schools, that would represent a sea change.

Nowak said he believed William Penn’s donation encourages others to kick in to the Philadelphia School Partnership.

“We hope it will attract national money,” Nowak said. “That would be good. I think the Gates Foundation will put some money in, though at the end of the day, I love the idea that local philanthropy will put up the lion’s share.”

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has already awarded Philadelphia a $100,000 planning grant for the work of the Great Schools Compact. The city is competing for more money from Gates.

The rising influence of William Penn and the Philadelphia School Partnership and the Great Schools Compact is not universally admired. Some fear that the compact gives short shrift to the district schools.

And when William Penn spent $1.5 million this year to fund the Boston Consulting Group’s examination of the district’s finances and operations to help arrive at an overhaul plan for the beleaguered organization, many were wary of a plan they call too corporate, too expensive, and too secret. District officials have since said their draft transformation plan is not final, is subject to more public input, and won’t be approved until next year.

“Unless you gave everybody ice cream, there was going to be some suspicion,” Nowak said of the plan.

Haas, the William Penn board chair, defended the decision to fund the consultants.

“The SRC wisely decided that it was time to get help from outside experts,” Haas said in a statement. “Insiders have not done a great job of helping our schools to succeed in recent years. BCG has an outstanding track record of helping to turn around urban districts in crisis, and we were more than happy to support their efforts to identify solutions. The cost of the work is not insignificant, but we think this is money well spent given how critical the success of the School District is to the futures of our children, families, and city.”

The consultants began work in the district this winter, but none of their findings have been made public. Haas said that BCG’s analysis and recommendations, due in a few days, will be “fully transparent.”

Gleason said that when the coming announcement about more money for the Philadelphia School Partnership is made, some donors have asked to remain anonymous, but most will be named.

“The folks who are critical or wary of these sorts of donations are missing the point, because they’re focusing on intentions or perceived intentions,” Gleason said. “What we’re trying to do here is get people focused on outcomes.”

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