At a time where we have seen university lecturers begin a month of walk outs in dispute over their pensions and students facing mounting debt due to increased tuition fees, the last thing that universities need is an expenses scandal. Yet this is exactly what they could have on their hands.
The recent FOI request by Channel 4’s Dispatches programme revealed that senior university managers have claimed almost £8 million in expenses over a two-year period. Many of these were claimed on international trips, with staff booking first class flights, five-star hotels and fine dining as they promoted their respective institutions.
It also detailed that the University of Surrey spent more than £1,600 of public money transporting its new vice chancellor’s dog from Australia to the UK, as part of the £15,000 “reasonable relocation allowances” granted for international moves.
These expense claims are of course legitimate. University chancellors are entitled to claim for anything deemed work-related, given it is in accordance with HMRC guidelines, much like how we saw with the MPs expenses scandal a few years ago. But there were also claims for rather more unusual items amongst the expenses that have been paid.
The investigation found that there had been expenses claimed for items ranging from £5 cushions, £32.50 mugs, luxury hampers, silver salvers and cocktails. There was also a claim from senior managers at Brighton University for sticks of rock.
There are very few private sector organisations who would sign off many of the claims that we have seen in this report. I’m not suggesting that it is wrong to claim for everything you are entitled to, but the issue with data such as this is that it positions the chancellors as part of an elite group who, dare I say it, seem out of touch with the students and lecturers at their institutions.
Just as it is now a requirement for members of Parliament to publish their expenses, universities now have a chance to simplify their expense processes and bring them in line with modern business practice. This includes using tools on the market that automate and streamline the process.
These findings come at a time when remuneration packages for university chancellors are under great inspection. And just because you can claim for something, doesn't mean you should. Vice chancellors may be following the rules, when their colleagues are seeing their pay held down and pensions cut, senior members of staff should show greater self-awareness. The fact that this is public money means there should be greater transparency and accountability over what is being claimed for and why.
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