27 November 2010

Old members are now alumni. Why?

"I'm turning into a grumpy old man," Dr Grumble said to one of his distinguished and even older colleagues from Cambridge recently. The distinguished older man explained to Dr Grumble that old men become grumpy because they know more. The longer you have lived the more experience you have and the more you can see the folly of what is going on around you. When you are young you think others may know better than you. Quite often they don't.

There is one advantage Dr Grumble has over younger people that they will never have. He can remember what it was like before they were even born. That is not something they will ever be able to do. No one can ever go back to the time before they were born. You can read books about the past but it is not the same as having been there.

Dr Grumble can remember when students used to protest about anything and everything and when Afghans were coats. Dr Grumble has always been one to make up his own mind about things. In those days he never protested and he never owned an Afghan. Now that protesting is less fashionable Dr Grumble sometimes does now go on marches. But he still doesn't have an Afghan.

Protesting is necessary. The political class do need to be made to listen. The only time Grumble has ever heard David Cameron speak to a group of doctors was on a protest march. If you can make a prime-minister-to-be come out into the street to talk to you, surely that makes your own efforts worthwhile.

Living a long time enables you to see change that young people are oblivious to. Dr Grumble has a lot of contact with young people. It's part of his job to teach and he works closely with young doctors. He listens to what they say. He reads their blogs.

The other day Dr Grumble overheard a final year student from Lily's medical school telling a another student not to sign on for the alumni. "They're just after your money ," she said. Can this be true? We never thought that way in our day. We never had any fears about given our contact details to our medical school so that they could keep in touch.

Here is the beginning of a letter Dr Grumble has just received from the Rector of his old Oxbridge College:

Dear Dr Grumble

I have asked a current student to ring you in the next few weeks - not to ask you for money, but.....

What a relief. They don't want Grumble's money. Lily and her friends clearly do not need to be concerned.

OK. Dr Grumble is playing with you. The letter does rather give it away in the first line. A polite way of asking for money is to say that you are not asking for money. It may not be a straight lie but it is somewhat disingenuous. The details of the letter are very interesting. It would appear to have been written by a professional and it uses the word alumni which is quite American. We always used to be called Old Members. Why this change? Was this letter really written by the Rector? Probably he was given guidance by the experts who know about this sort of thing.

The last time they telephoned from Grumble's old college it was in the evening. Dr Grumble was still in the hospital working. He was busy. A student telephoned the Grumble home and asked for Dr Grumble. Mrs Grumble, thinking it was a junior doctor that needed Grumble's help, gave the caller his mobile number. She seemed determined to talk and Grumble just didn't have time. As she plainly wasn't going to take a polite hint and Grumble did not want a long phone call while he was on call for emergencies, he gave the student an earful. In response the Rector wrote a polite letter saying they would not phone him again. Plainly they have forgotten.

A mysterious gargoyle

Dr Grumble has a lot of affection for his old Oxbridge College. He does felt indebted to Oxbridge and repays that debt by teaching his own students more than he might otherwise. Only yesterday he received a card from his latest group with a golden THANK YOU emblazoned on the front. They realise Dr Grumble is trying to enthuse them and pass on what he knows before he retires or worse.

What grieves Grumble about all of this is that his old college, which happens to be relatively poor, is having to go cap in hand to old members to try and balance its books. Oxford and Cambridge are national assets. There is a case for our government to support them. But the ConDems (just like New Labour) seem to want them to become like businesses with hefty fees. And Dr Grumble does not feel inclined to bail out a business - not that he has the sort of money to make a difference.

But unfortunately this government, which is beginning to show a nasty streak, does seem to expect old members to keep their Oxbridge Colleges going. In response to this there appear to be private money-raising enterprises advising these academic organisations how to squeeze money out of their old members. Raising money for Oxbridge colleges is now a money-making business which employs, yes, Oxbridge graduates. Dr Grumble knows one. He does not like the job much but it pays handsomely.

There is something rotten about this. It is connected with the increasing Americanisation of Britain. Our governments no longer see it as their job to support important academic institutions. They have abandoned them. In these circumstances you really cannot blame them for turning to desperate measure such as phoning Dr Grumble on his evening ward round.

Grumble has kept in touch with some of his old Oxbridge mates. More than a few are now earning silly sums of money. One was head of a company in the footsie 100. Another owns one of those enormous town houses alongside a famous London park and is regularly heard on TV and radio. These people really do have enough spare money to make a real difference to Dr Grumble's old, small and impoverished Oxbridge College. Dr Grumble does not blame the Rector for asking them. He has to do things the way our government wants things to be done. The problem is with the way our governments have not wanted to tax the better off in order to support good causes like worthy academic institutions. We are gradually being turned into America and Dr Grumble doesn't like it one bit.

Dr Grumble's old college was founded in the early 1400s. He is concerned about it. He wishes it well. He doesn't blame the Rector for bribing students to phone him on his ward round. But it grieves him very much that it has come to this. It never used to be like this. Lily's friend is right. Whether you are Oxbridge, London or red brick, these days they are just after your money and is it very very sad. And to add insult to injury they now call you alumni.


Anonymous said...

The bigger worry is; if you don't pay, then one of your children wanted to apply for say a PhD with that college, would that affect his/her chance of getting accepted?

And with that current trend in information sharing, would 'your' none payment affect your child's chance everywhere else too since they carry your name? Based on the logic that if dad didn't pay, then son won't pay when established too, so why offer a place instead of keeping it for those who do?

Dr Grumble said...

This thought has crossed the Grumble mind too. You would think that there ought to be a Chinese wall to prevent payment facilitating entry to Oxbridge. But if they are expected to run the place as a business it would not be surprising if you could buy favour. On the other hand there have been instances when substantial donors have complained that their offspring have not been admitted. But the very fact that they complained obviously indicates that they thought they were going to receive something in return for their donation.

Witch Doctor said...

Been there too. A charming and enthusiastic female student phoned one evening and first asked me about my student days at university and the subjects I most enjoyed studying. It was clear chatting was an overture to win me over, so I told her I refused to rote learn Kreb's Cycle since I feared it would tax my brain too much, and that universities had no right to abuse students' synapses in this way. She said she was an Arts student and hung up quickly. A couple of days later I had a phone call from another student. My Alma Mater seems to have me registered under two different names.

No, I didn't give money but felt saddened that students were being used in this way.

Anonymous said...

"substantial donors have complained that their offspring have not been admitted."

How good were the rejected offspring? Because if they were 'bad' then its in the face of Oxbridge to accept them, very obvious why they were accepted if you can see what I mean - however, if they were 'marginal', college may very well accept them in place of an excellent candidate who is poor. I think those big donors would expect that too, otherwise, not only their money that would be stopped, but all of their friends money too ... and the college would then develop a 'reputation' that it is not reasonable and is uncooperative ... and get into real trouble financially as all the big donors stop.

In business, it's reputation, reputation, reputation - if you want to keep your customer's loyalty.

And it's not only Oxbridge who are at this practice now, all of them are doing it. Will there be a central database soon of who pays and who doesn't? And one to assess all graduates as they progress into their careers to establish their ability .. and level, of payment? You can't just donate 50 pounds if you earn millions and can pay 50k, then expect your child to be offered a place now, can you?! Another database for whatever info you can gather on current and soon to be in college parents too?

:-D ... it's the weekend, so allow me! ... only it is freightening if you think of it this way!

The Hippocratic Oaf said...

I too have been phoned up and asked by my old university (graduated 3 years ago) to donate money. Despite going straight from that degree into medicine, which was on their records and mentioned during the call I was asked if I wouldn't consider a small donation from the student maintenance loan I receive.

I duly hung up.

Cockroach Catcher said...

Lets say I also have links with one of the three oldest colleges at Cambridge. The Americanisation includes paying a high salary to the Master nowadays and his function is to get "money" one way or another.

He is also highly paid so that he can keep the Academics at extremely low pay.

The Cockroach Catcher

Sean said...

My college has always sent me an annual report, but now I get frequent letters from them and the University asking for money.

But my wife does like looking at the post and saying "Looks like Jesus is having a hard time, he's asking for money again!"

Dr Aust said...

Witch Doctor, the students who do this tele-cold-calling stuff are getting paid reasonably well to do it. One of our grad students used to do this for extra money when it started at my Univ some 15 years back.

I regularly get "tapped up" by post by my two Alma Maters (UCL and Bristol), but thankfully they either don't have my phone no or are not as pushy as Oxbridge Colleges. I don't reply as I've never felt they needed my money as much as Oxfam and Amnesty do.

Meanwhile, my current (Russell Group) Univ has just advertised for two more "Major Donor Personal Schmoozers" (in effect) on salaries of £ 38-46K, equivalent to the upper half of the non-clinical lecturer scale. There is going to be one of these per Faculty, apparently. Hey ho. Yet another Univ admin job that pays better than being an academic. * Sigh *

Julie said...

You might like a look at this;


Dr Grumble said...

A very apposite clip. Thanks, Julie.

Anonymous said...

I thought you might want to know Dr G;

Sixteen doctor alumni of Imperial have been included in The Times list of eminent specialists.

* Dr Roger Aldridge (St Mary's Hospital Medical School 1974) - Allergies
* Dr Neil Moat (St Mary's Hospital Medical School 1984) - Cardiac surgery
* Dr Francis Wells (Charing Cross Hospital Medical School 1975) - Cardiac surgery
* Professor Malcolm Greaves (Charing Cross Hospital Medical School 1957) - Dermatology
* Professor Valerie Lund (Charing Cross Hospital Medical School 1977) - Fertility
* Henrietta Bowden-Jones (Neuroscience and Mental Health 2005) - Mental health
* Dr Andrew McEvoy (Charing Cross Hospital Medical School 1990) - Neurology and Neurosurgery
* Dr Rohit Kulkarni (Royal Postgraduate Medical School 1994) - Orthopaedics
* Terence Stephenson (Charing Cross and Westminster Medical School 1987) - Paediatrics
* Paul Banwell (St Mary's Hospital Medical School 1988) - Plastic surgery
* Dr Barry Jones (Charing Cross Hospital Medical School 1974) - Plastic surgery
* Professor Neil Barnes (Charing Cross Hospital Medical School 1979) – Respiratory health
* Dr Simon Barton (Charing Cross and Westminster Medical School 1982) – Sexual health
* Dr John Shneerson (St Marys Hospital Medical School 1971) - Sleep
* Dr Richard Budgett (National Heart and Lung Institute 2001) – Sports medicine
* Dr George Lewith (Charing Cross and Westminster Medical School 1974) – Acupuncture

Other Imperial top docs listed are; Sir Magdy Yacoub, Pofessor Partridge and, of course, Lord Ara Darzi

I thought you may even be in that list yourself, who knows?

Dr Aust said...

Not sure I'd be boasting too loudly about it if that indefatigable defender of "Magic (alternative) Medicine" George Lewith (see numerous mentions on David Colquhoun's Improbable Science blog) had attended my medical school.

One should perhaps note that almost all those people were alumni of separate medical establishments (with presumably their own customs and traditions) that Imperial subsumed in the 80s and 90s. Though that is partly just a reflection of the age (typically somewhere over 50) of the docs in these "eminent specialist" type lists. Anyway, I would be curious to know exactly how much of the heritage and ethos of these old medical colleges survived the Imperial takeover.

Anonymous said...

None of those eminent doctors would really think of themselves as having trained at Imperial. Who says they are Imperial? Imperial perhaps?

Dr Aust said...

Among all UK Univs, Imperial is the one that has historically thought and behaved the most like a corporation. Early import of management practises borrowed from business, takeovers, attempts at major mergers (like the aborted one with UCL) etc etc. You can also see it in their choice of VCs/Principals and where they come from - ex-business honchos (like Richard Sykes, ex Glaxo) rather than ex-academics.

Sam said...

"Imperial is the one that has historically thought and behaved the most like a corporation."

But, alonside excellent and innovative academia, that's one of Imperial's strengths, that they emphasise enterprise and rewards entrepeneurial endevour either by the college's staff or students - Imperial is forever modernising and bettering herself ... it's called moving with the times and not being stuck in the past as others sometimes do. Very exiting atmosphere, ask the students and the alumni

Dr Aust said...

Fair points, Sam. I would agree about the entrepreneurialism, and in that way Imperial is more like the US Univs than most other UK institutions. But I would also say that Imperial has a reputation among academics for being a pretty hard-nosed and unsympathetic employer - more fruitless reorganisations, more useless performance appraisal schemes, more forced redundancy, and so on.

The answer may well be that Imperial is a very good place to be a high-flying academic, but not a very good one to be an average academic. But all Universities actually need (perhaps slightly better than) average academics too.

Imperial is rather unusual among UK HEIs, of course, in NOT having arts & humanities, or at least not very much of them. It didn't have medicine either until it took over St Marys in the late 80s, and the other colleges in the 90s. The point of this is that in political terms scientists historically tend to be a bit more politically apathetic than the arts & humanities crew. So Imperial has always been far less radical than, say, UCL. This manifests itself in part in the attitude of the staff to the College and its management. The long-serving people at UCL I know feel that they belong to UCL, and it to them. The people at Imperial feel far more like employees. It is a little bit, I think, like the difference between the NHS of yesteryear, and what looks like being the NHS of tomorrow.

None of which is to say that Imperial does not do first-rate research, or provide first-rate education for its students. It is more that in English University terms it is a bit of a one-off.

Of course, I suspect the Conservative Govt would likely regard it as a model.

Sam said...

I don't know about Imperial's internal affairs Dr Aust, but as a parent, I feel that the college does all it can to motivate and encourage it's students and staff alike, hence it would be a shame if either didn't take the opportunity to better themselves and prosper ... those, as you say, do feel at home at Imperial, and that can only be classifies as 'good'.


Dr Aust said...

Hmm... one for Sam, I think:

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