Speech to the Universities Australia and CASE Philanthropy Capacity Building Symposium

Simon Birmingham: Thank you, Glyn. It’s a wonderful gathering in the round here today; a fabulous theatre. So, thank you for the opportunity to come along and to you, to other vice-chancellors present; Scott, Margaret, Jane – I’m sure there are others I’ve probably not noticed in the audience, so apologies – to leaders of universities [indistinct] thanks for the chance to be here. I was just reflecting, I guess, on the culture of giving and philanthropy before coming today and kind of thinking about sort of how it’s encapsulated in some way. I discovered a quote from Albert Pike, a nineteenth century US lawyer, poet, writer, solider – as they were in those days, they had many different hats – who said what we have done for ourselves alone dies with us; what we have done for others and the world remains and is immortal. Now, that in a sense encapsulates in some ways a personal benefit from engaging in philanthropy, but it also recognises the benefits of giving that last long after and are of course the reason, the rationale that some give, and certainly the benefit that society enjoys from doing so.

We certainly need to do more, as I think we have successfully done in recent times, to celebrate those who give and to recognise the benefits of philanthropy. Because in doing so, it provides encouragement, motivation, and incentive for others to follow suit and to recognise that they can make enormous contribution to good causes which through our higher education sector in particular – through universities, through education more generally, but perhaps especially universities with dual missions of teaching and learning coupled with the development of research and knowledge – provides vast scope for people to make a contribution, a lasting contribution, leave a lasting legacy, in ways that suit their ambitions, their priorities, their principles, their beliefs, but of course also provide significant benefit to the nation as well.

Government of course remains, and I am confident always will remain, the prime supporter of research activity and domestic teaching and learning support for our research and university institutions. But what we do can absolutely be value added in many ways by many multiples by those who choose to give and to maximise pledges, requests, private support, particularly from alumni but also from others with vast and different motivations, is something that we warmly welcome and encourage as a significant complement to the commitment that we have to having and maintaining outstanding world-class universities.

The Philanthropy in Australian Higher Education Working Party report is a really important document. I want to pay tribute to Glenn for driving this but to all those that worked on it and with Glenn and to UA for your work in terms of producing a document that gives great thought to the direction in which we can take philanthropic work in our university sector.

It comes on top of reports from the likes of the Business Higher Education Round Table, BHERT, and others who over the last decade have spelt out the importance of understanding and realising the opportunities that giving provides. Previous reports have highlighted that while there’s a [inaudible] and generous predisposition to giving, our universities have not always successfully embraced the culture of asking, of working out how to best engage, how to best ensure that they maximise the opportunities that are there.

Now, as Federal Minister, I don’t necessarily find the same level of shyness from universities when it comes to asking. Perhaps, and that’s long existed in relation to the connection in relation to the Government, but it is important that thoughtful, considered strategies are applied and developed to engage with those who are willing to give or have the potential and capacity to give more.

In recent years, as you’ve been hearing, we’ve seen a number of higher education institutions develop their advancement strategies. And perhaps we’re seeing, as we just heard in conversation then, that some of that development, coming as we do in Australia off of the base for our universities, have not as much history as some of the institutions we’ve talked about. It enables us to look at the opportunities in methodology to maximise in giving with fresher sets of eyes. But we’ve learned from the way in which philanthropy and endowments, and some of the best known from the United States [indistinct] the universities have worked, but we’re able to apply new approaches, new methodologies that, with any luck, can in fact see us become world leaders in that space.

We’ve seen some very significant moves, commitments and celebrations of those commitments in recent times. You’ve heard and we’re all aware of the success that Glenn and Melbourne have had in terms of the work here. Equally, the significance of Graham and Louise Tuckwell in their $150 million scholarship and contribution to ANU. Louise Tuckwell, in making that gift, said, and I quote: ‘when we were first married, one day one of the things we used to chat about was what if one day we were fortunate to be in the fortunate position of having money to give to a good cause and really make a difference’. They are, they have. They set a wonderful example for, of course, so many others. It’s not just Melbourne or ANU – Sydney achieved their target of $600 million in private donors two years earlier than expected, with students and indeed Gen Y graduates the fast growing group of philanthropists. 

Many other universities have noted significant donations in excess of $25 million. UWA’s support from Andrew and Nicola Forrest, Twiggy Forrest: $65 million to support scholarships and post-doctoral development. Dr Chau Chak Wing: $25 million contribution  to UTS, to their faculty of business, and an additional $5 million to support endowment funds for scholarships. Barry and Joy Lambert giving a $33.7 million contribution to Sydney for research into medicinal cannabis. The Atlantic Philanthropies: $30 million [indistinct] $2 million into the new Bio21 Institute in Melbourne. We see Australians’ generosity in many different ways, from times of natural disaster, to of course supporting a range of very worthy causes. But importantly, we are seeing a thoughtfulness in giving. It isn’t just a response to individual situations, but it is a seizing of opportunity to make long-term advancement and differences.

Government’s role is one, hopefully, of support and encouragement, creating the right framework and environment, but equally, not getting in the way. Some have suggested that big donors are motivated by addressing problems and could be put off by too much government involvement. It is important that we make sure our role is seen to be one of creating that right environment, being as supportive as possible, but allowing universities to have the autonomy and capacity to be able to make the most of those opportunities. 

The sector, of course, is continuing to build ties with industry, and that pays dividends. It’s not just individual or personal contributions. Just last week the Minerals Council announced three scholarships for PhD, full-time postdoctoral researchers. So different types of support that can come from many different ways to make a difference. We are making government support ready to help advance knowledge in this space, having committed $1.7 million to QUT in partnership with Swinburne to commission the Giving Australia 2016 project, which will collect information from individuals, charities, philanthropists and businesses to determine how best to make giving and volunteering more accessible to Australians, which will complement the body of work from this working partnering.

The 2016 Ross-CASE survey on charitable giving to universities in Australia and New Zealand has revealed many positive trends. They include a 26 per cent increase in the total of new philanthropic income secured since 2014, reaching over $538 million in giving in 2015, and notable and incredibly important when you consider the list of major contributions that I gave before, that for donations over $1 million, we’ve seen an increase of six per cent amongst G8 universities recording that data, and an increase of 60 per cent for the non-G8 universities. A real demonstration of continued support and growing support right across the higher education sector, and of the diversity in outcomes that can be achieved by support for our wonderful diversity of university institutions. 

Total cash income received increased by 24 per cent in 2014 to almost $393 million in 2015. The total number of donors and the number of alumni donors increasing by 23 per cent and 16 per cent respectively. These findings are incredibly encouraging to the future of philanthropy for all of our higher education institutions, and demonstrate that ongoing engagement with alumni networks here and overseas is critically important. 

My colleague, the Foreign Minister, has told the story on occasion where she spent six months studying at Harvard. And in her time there she quickly felt that she had been locked in as a valued member of that institution’s alumni. But that her Australian experience was a little different: that the first contact she had with her alma mater in Australia wasn’t until she became the Education Minister. Now thankfully, we have come a long, long way. And indeed the opportunity, as I said before, is there for us now to reverse those types of trends, for us indeed to use the benefits of greater data mining, of greater connectivity with alumni to be able to actually outstrip some of those traditional institutions in their activity- philanthropic activities. The number of participating universities in the Ross-CASE survey has grown from one in five Australian universities in 2013 to just over half in 2016. I welcome that, and consistent with the recommendations to government in working through support, we would absolutely encourage all Australian universities to participate in this type of process.

The focus of this report, that this symposium brings is important. It allows us to ensure the sector develops the skills necessary to enable and sustain long term strategies, philanthropic activity within institutions. Gatherings like this allow you to share best practice, because the ambition is well and truly one of growing the path, growing the base of philanthropic giving. Yes, there is a degree of competition of course in the dollars that are there, but maximising those dollars in the first instance is of course critically important.

With the growth in activity we've seen recently, we should have confidence that there are big opportunities here to innovate, to be proactive, develop unique approaches across institutions and to learn from each other's best practice that you have been developing. Government has not been the primary driver of this; you have gone out and done it yourselves. But importantly, the working group report provides a suite of recommendations to government. I give you my commitment that we will give those recommendations our full consideration. We will act on them where we possibly can, where it aligns with government priorities and government budget considerations to be able to support you to do your best, because we know that we can create better outcomes for students, for researchers, for our universities, for all Australians by achieving the optimal rate of giving amongst Australians, amongst global institutions to of course our Australian universities.

So thank you very much for the commitment you have shown by being here today, participating in this symposium. Thank you once again, and congratulations once again on the development of this working party report, and I do look forward to continuing discussions on this important issue, not just making this a one-off but ensure that it is an ongoing focus of our engagement in the sector and our policy settings to complement the good work that you already do. Thanks so much.