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Millionaire benefactor who donated £7m to Durham University cuts ties in protest over Covid rules

Durham’s record-setting benefactor has suspended all donations to the university over strict Covid regulations for current students.

Mark Hillery, an alumnus of Collingwood College, Durham, had donated more than £7.5 million to the northern university between 2015 and 2021.

He said Durham told student newspaper Palatinate that he had been in contact with the university several times about their restrictions which were stricter than the government guidelines.

Hillery said that his decision was mainly about Durham reintroducing online learning at the start of their spring term in January.

Mr Hillery was a prolific benefactor at Durham in recent years including his donation of a brand new arts center on campus which bars his name

As part of his ‘step back’ from Durham, he has resigned from the advisory board of Collingwood College, requested the university cease dialogue with him, and has vowed to never visit Durham again ‘while there is a single Covid-related rule imposed on students’.

Hillery told Palatinate: ‘It’s a very depressing state of affairs.

‘Urgency that should have been displayed to fully normalise [the University] to the same status as the rest of society has not been there.

‘The same pedantic and ineffective policies that place the priorities of the paying students at the bottom of the pile are simply continued and refined […] it’s tiring to watch.

‘I had always felt a very close connection and obligations to the university and its students […] it feels odd to be so disengaged, but it is what it is now’.

Hillery also criticised the ‘test to participate’ scheme which required students to have oroof of a negative lateral flow test from a University testing site to access bars, play sport or attend formals.

This measure disqualified those who had evidence of a home lateral flow test provided by NHS England.

Face coverings are still compulsory throughout the campus despite government maintaining that ‘no student should be denied education on the groups that they are, or are not, wearing a face covering’

Durham explained these policies by citing the need to ‘monitor local and national case rates, with a changed community prevalence, and ensure that our Covid controls are appropriate’.

The benefactor is famous for his annual visits to Collingwood in which he places his card behind the bar with no stipulations, providing students at the college with a night of free drinks.

He slammed the University for their 'pedantic and ineffective policies that place the priorities of the paying students at the bottom of the pile'

He slammed the University for their ‘pedantic and ineffective policies that place the priorities of the paying students at the bottom of the pile’

In 2015, the Durham Tab reported that he had stumped up more than £10,000 in one night of student drinking.

In 2016, Durham’s alumni office announced that Mr Hillery had donated a record-setting £4 million (with an extra £1 million in Gift Aid) to Collingwood College to build a 200-seater Arts Center.

The Mark Hillery Arts Center opened in 2018 with a gym extension, a yoga/pilates studio, an enlarged Junior Common Room, and a bar conservatory as well as providing an artificial football pitch and cricket nets.

He has made several visits to campus since 1991 and is known to present talks on the finance world for students.

He helped developed the University’s alumni network and has underwritten alumni events in the UK and Cape Town.

A Durham spokesperson said: ‘Mark Hillery is a generous benefactor to the University. We appreciate his support for many initiatives, including the Mark Hillery Arts Centre, a studio theater and music venue at our Collingwood College.

‘These contributions have improved our students’ experience and will continue to make an impact for many years to come.

‘Our approach to managing the Covid-19 pandemic has always prioritised the health, safety and wellbeing of our staff, students and the wider community.

‘We have been guided at all times by the local trajectory of the pandemic which varied at different times across the UK. We have carefully taken into account a wide range of information and perspectives, including Government guidelines, prevailing conditions and advice from local Public Health colleagues.’

Face coverings are still compulsory throughout Durham's campus (file photo)

Face coverings are still compulsory throughout Durham’s campus (file photo)

Mr Hillery told the Sunday Times: ‘When I arrived here, I was academically clever but I was not the finished article socially. It’s simply returning a favour.

‘If there was a critical three years of my life, it was the three years I spent here.’

The millionaire was worth a reported £163 million in 2020 and ranked as tied 743rd on the Sunday Times Rich List that year.

He has homes in London, Tuscany, Cape Town and New York.

In 2012, he was reported to be the mystery buyer of a $7.9 million (£5.9 million) New York penthouse formerly owned by Oprah Winfrey.

The property on 207 East 57th St was lived in by the media mogul’s partner Gayle King and is comprised of three bedrooms, 3.5-bathroom and a 768-square-foot terrace.

The luxury apartment boasts a chef’s kitchen, a master suite with three walk-in closets and floor-to-ceiling windows with views from Central Park to the Hudson River according to Anjollie Feradov, of SKNY Real Estate, who spoke to the New York Post .



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