Top universities, including the University of Southampton, have been accused of hiring wealth screening firms to gauge the value of alumni in a bid to increase donations.
An investigation by Daily Mail found that Southampton had sent 497,917 records to wealth screening firms including WealthEngine and Prospecting for Gold. Another 23 Russell Group institutions have also been implicated, including both Oxford and Cambridge.
According to the Mail, these records included information about alumnis’ incomes, investments, pensions, and the value of the properties they owned. Graduates were ranked on criteria including their wealth, social class, and how likely it was that they would leave money to the university in their wills.
An investigation into the allegations has now been launched by the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO), backed by the Department for Education. It is possible that universities could be found in breach of the law and fined if alumni were screened without their consent, or without reasonable expectation that it would happen.
The University responded in a statement:
This activity was used by us between 2010 – 2013 to closely align our fundraising activity with the interests and means of our alumni and supporters. No such activity has taken place since then. The figure quoted in the Daily Mail of 497,917 represented the total number of records over a three year period. The actual number of individual records shared was 197,000. We are a signatory to the Fundraising Regulatory Code of Practise and this activity was fully compliant with the law and disclosed on our websites at the time.
Our University was founded on philanthropy and, throughout its history, thousands of donors have supported many projects… Philanthropy at Southampton has raised over £39m since 2010. We are extremely proud of and grateful for the support we receive from our alumni and donors.
Elizabeth Denham, the Information Commissioner, said that the ICO would ‘look carefully’ at evidence provided by the Mail investigation to see if any rules had been broken, and what could be learned.
She emphasised that ‘profiling individuals for a fundraising campaign itself is not against the law, but failing to clearly tell people that you’re going to do it, is’.