Endowment funds at American universities have recovered from the economic downturn better than their British counterparts, so that they are now worth a quarter more than they were a decade ago. Meanwhile endowments funds at most UK universities – apart from Oxford and Cambridge – have failed to see any significant growth in a decade, according to new research by the Sutton Trust published today.

The Sutton Trust is calling on the UK government to do more to encourage British universities to build up assets through fundraising to support their capital growth and their capacity to support bursaries for postgraduates on low and middle incomes.

A match-funding scheme supported by the Government helped increase annual fundraising by UK universities from £513m in 2008 to £694m in 2011 and to improve fundraising capacity at many universities.

The new research shows that the level of endowments at the top 100 UK universities grew in real terms from £7,980 million in 2002 to £10,900m in 2012, an increase of 37%.

However, that increase was almost entirely the result of growth in the size of funds held by Cambridge and Oxford, and their colleges. Cambridge’s funds were worth £4.9 billion in 2012 (up from £2.8 billion) and Oxford’s funds were worth £3.8 billion (up from £2.8 billion). The size of their endowments would see Cambridge placed 8th in a US league table and Oxford 14th.

When Oxbridge is excluded, the average UK university saw its funds fall in real terms from £23.8m to £23m. After Oxbridge, the most significant funds are held by Edinburgh (£238m), Manchester (£154m) and Liverpool (£138m). Edinburgh would be in 182nd place in a US league table.By contrast, the funds held by the top 500 US universities grew from £192.4 billion to £237 billion. While Harvard’s £19.3 billion and Yale’s £12.4 billion funds are the largest in the US, their dominance in being challenged by Texas (£12.2 billion), Stanford (£11.2 billion) and Princeton (£10.9 billion).

Among the Top 500 US universities, the average endowment is worth £418 million, when Harvard and Yale are excluded, an increase of 24% from £337m in 2002.

The top US universities, including Harvard and Yale, use some of their endowment income to fund full scholarships covering tuition and living expenses for students from low and middle income families. This year, the Sutton Trust has enabled 61 such UK students to win financial aid at leading US universities worth a total of $14m (£8.2m).

Sir Peter Lampl, chair of the Sutton Trust and the Education Endowment Foundation said today: “Strong endowments enable universities to do more to support social mobility, and recruit the best teachers and researchers. In the UK, they could also help to support more postgraduate students from low and middle incomes, where there is minimal public support for students.

“Over the last decade – Oxbridge aside – UK universities have not seen any overall growth in the size of their endowments, although their fundraising capacity has improved. There is a good economic case for the Government to do more to encourage donations to our universities and build further their fundraising capacity and alumni networks, including through matched donations and simplified tax incentives.  Doing so would make British higher education more globally competitive.”


1.       The Sutton Trust is a foundation set up in 1997, dedicated to improving social mobility through education. It has published over 140 research studies and funded and evaluated programmes that have helped hundreds of thousands of young people of all ages, from early years through to access to the professions.

2.       The Sutton Trust report “Academic Assets” is available here.  For the report, the Sutton Trust analysed data from the Higher Education Chronicle in the US and Caritas data in the UK, and comparative 2002 data from the same sources. Data for Oxford and Cambridge includes college data.

3.       Between 2002 and 2012, an accounting change affected some UK universities. The Statement of Recommended Accounting Practice (SORP) guidance, published in 2007, meant that funds donated ‘with no specific purpose by the donor and with no requirement for maintenance of the original capital’ could no longer be treated as endowment funds. For some institutions this had a significant impact. University funds were also impacted by the global financial crash in 2008.

4.       Between 2008 and 2011, the UK government provided match-funding worth £143m to universities triggered by £580m in donations. The scheme saw annual fundraising increase from £513m in 2008 to £694m in 2011. An evaluation report for the scheme published by HEFCE urged further match-funding in the future. The evaluation is available here.

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