The University of Oxford recently announced a £150 million donation from Stephen Schwartzmann, which their press release (PDF) prominently calls "the largest single donation to Oxford University since the Renaissance".

This claim has been repeated by news organisations. For example, the Guardian repeats the claim in full, while the BBC News website goes for the stronger claim that this is "the largest single donation to a UK university" with no timeframe specified.

Is this claim justifiable? The English Renaissance ended in the early 17th Century, and I would expect it to be difficult to make meaningful comparisons between our moden marketised economy and the systems existing then. The Bank of England dates to 1691, and the earliest estimates of inflation I could find with a cursory search extend no earlier than 1751.

The BBC's claim that this is the largest single donation to any UK university since Oxford was founded in 1096 seems even more difficult, if not impossible, to justify. I assume this results from a misquoting of the press release, rather than a novel analysis, but I'm happy to be contradicted.

On what records is the university's claim based? Is it possible to justify the claim using standard economic methods?

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    You are pointing to differences in economy back then and now. One thing that also was different was that, back then, patronship was much more common. You wouldn't donate millions in one go, but rather make recurring payments to an organization, pay a professor's salary or somesuch. More importantly though, I don't see "adjusted for inflation" anywhere in the claims, which would make the claim about the number "150 million", not the actual economical value of the donation -- which makes the claim rather easy to believe.
    – DevSolar
    Jun 19, 2019 at 9:50
  • Fair. It seems misleading to not account for inflation when comparing historic values, but I agree that seems likely to be what's happening here. Jun 19, 2019 at 10:00
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    The Oxford web site gives their income for 2017/2018 as 2,237.0 M£ - this includes donations of 93 M£. If the sum is about the same for 18/19, 150 M£ would constitute about 6.7% of the income - if Oxford since the Renaissance had a contribution pay for a larger percentage, would that deflate the claim in your eyes?
    – bukwyrm
    Jun 19, 2019 at 11:16
  • @bukwyrm That would be a very good way to quantify the value of the donation to the university, and I'd be interested in seeing that. Whether it's a good measure of the "overall" value of the donation, whatever that may mean, is a different question, but I'd say it's a pretty solid proxy in the absence of figures for inflation/GDP. Jun 19, 2019 at 11:24
  • It could mean "we did an analysis of donations dating to the earliest we could inflation-adjust, and found none larger", and labelling that as "since the Renaissance"
    – Caleth
    Jun 19, 2019 at 14:57


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