Moritz’s £75 million donation will help students study at Oxford for years to come, writes John Garth.

“I would not be here today were it not for the generosity of strangers.” There could be no simpler justification for the act of philanthropy which, from this year forward, will enable students from poorer circumstances to take up places at Oxford without fear of debt. Billionaire Michael Moritz, who with his wife, author Harriet Heyman, has pledged a record-breaking £75 million to kickstart a £300 million student support programme, said he was inspired by how his parents had been welcomed in England as Jewish refugees fleeing Nazi terror.

Moritz’s mother Doris arrived on the Kindertransport in 1937, some years after the arrival of his father Alfred – the son of a judge who had lost his job under the Nuremberg race laws. “They were both teenagers and neither of them knew anyone when they came here,” Moritz tells Oxford Today. “It’s the story of refugees and immigrants from oppression through the ages.” Scholarships saw both of them through school, and Alfred through Oxford; he went on to teach classics at University College, Cardiff. Their son, the sole 1973 Oxbridge entrant from Cardiff’s comprehensive Howardian School, read history at Christ Church.

A questing spirit, after Oxford Moritz took an MBA at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania with the help of a Thouron scholarship. Having worked on Isis while at Oxford (“wonderfully liberating”) he reported for Time and wrote popular histories of Apple and Chrysler before joining California’s Sequoia Capital in 1986. In 1999 he invested $25 million for Sequoia in a tech startup, then just a year old and still being run from a garage by a couple of graduate students. It was an understated internet search engine called Google. Sequoia Capital’s 10 per cent stake has paid off well, as have its early investments in Yahoo!, PayPal and other companies. Moritz does not discuss his personal wealth but Forbes puts it at $1.7 billion (£1.09 billion). Two years ago he learned that he had a rare and incurable degenerative condition, and in May this year he became Chairman of Sequoia Capital, concentrating his time on the firm’s investments rather than daily management.

He remains intensively engaged, however. The idea of the Oxford gift came to him on one of his weekly 100-mile cycle rides. The night before, he had heard Vice-Chancellor Andrew Hamilton at an alumni event in San Francisco. “He raised the spectre of a rising financial burden associated with both fees and living costs at Oxford inhibiting children from more straitened circumstances from applying. I thought this is one place where we could really make a difference.”

He spoke with Professor Hamilton the next day and “it all came together quickly”. The Moritz-Heyman gift will come in three tranches of £25 million, each matched by the equivalent of investment returns from £25 million of the University’s own endowment; the collegiate University is then challenged to match each £50 million stage with a further £50 million. The total sum arrived at is, thus, £300 million. Moritz has “not a scintilla of doubt” that the additional £150 million can be raised. How? “We just ask people.”

A single Moritz-Heyman Scholarship provides £5,500 a year. With the annual non-repayable government grant of £3,250, this will cover upfront living costs. Tuition fees for bursary holders are being pegged at the 2011–12 level of £3,500 a year: a further £5,500 saving (with low-interest loans repayable only when income reaches £21,000, as usual). The package is therefore worth £33,000 over three years, £44,000 over four. The University will identify those eligible once a place has been offered. This year the first tranche of funding will provide 100 scholarships, and at steady state, when all three pledges have been made and matched, the Moritz-Heyman programme will fund a cohort of some 500 students. The anticipated additional £150 million raised by the collegiate University will support other undergraduates from the most disadvantaged backgrounds. Overall, around 2,500 students – a quarter of Oxford’s undergraduate population – receive financial support already because of their family circumstances. Those in the lowest income bracket who do not become Moritz-Heyman Scholars will receive around £7,500 a year for every year of their course, in the form of bursaries and fee-waivers, with tapered provision made up to family income levels of £46,500. Thus there are many opportunities for other donors to support the 2,000 students – other than Moritz-Heyman Scholarships – who receive financial support, and contribute to this funding challenge.

Priority for the Scholarships will go to students whose home postcodes are under-represented in higher education, or who went to under performing schools. Undergraduates taking ‘STEM subjects’ – science, technology, engineering and maths, will also receive priority. This was a mutual decision with University authorities, says Moritz, and he is passionate in its defence. “Science and the corpus of science has just blossomed in a manner that nobody 100 years ago would ever have been able to imagine. Advanced societies have got to embrace the future, and to embrace the future you have to furnish your young people with the ability to develop, to be able to create breakthroughs.”

The money will also support a dedicated internship programme run by the University Careers Service. All Scholars will undertake an internship, probably during the long vac, which should boost their potential in the jobs market. Additionally, they will be asked to take part in voluntary outreach work (visits to schools, mentoring pupils, taking part in admissions fairs) to encourage further applications from under-represented areas.

From the Elizabeth Garrett Anderson School in London, where more than half of pupils are in the lowest income bracket, headteacher Jo Dibb said the scholarships could “help reverse what is true for many now: that the biggest determinant of their future is who their parents are and where they’re born”.

Previously awarded the University’s Sheldon Medal after giving £25 million to Christ Church in 2008, Moritz and Heyman felt that Oxford “was one of these places where if we concentrated a beam, the light would gradually dissipate to all sorts of other places in Britain”. One way it can do so is “to begin the conversation about how to provide meaningful undergraduate support for students attending all sorts of universities and colleges throughout Britain”. The other way is by opening doors for individuals.

“I’ve been inspired by the examples of the founders of so many companies in Silicon Valley whose journey to greatness was lubricated by scholarships,” says Moritz. “Google’s book scanning and all the rest of it wouldn’t have been possible unless Sergey [Brin], one of the founders, had received a scholarship to go to university. “This is about giving gifts to a set of people who themselves will then be able to go on and really make a difference in whatever they choose to do.” The first Moritz-Heyman Scholars are already here at Oxford, this Michaelmas term.