University vice-chancellors expense claims for luxury items exposed

Vice Chancellors from universities across the UK have charged lavish expenses, according to an investigation by Channel 4’s Dispatches.

Among the claims made by senior officials in higher education institutions were Easter eggs, a hamper from Fortnum & Mason’s, and even the relocation of one vice chancellor’s dog from Australia to the United Kingdom. The latter claim reportedly cost £1,600.

This news comes as the Universities and Colleges Union and Universities UK, representing higher education employees and employers respectively, have proposed a deal to end strikes over changes to pension schemes for academics. 

However the deal proposed by the UCU leadership is being opposed by many of its branches. The University of Liverpool released a statement condemning the deal as being unable to offer “decency in retirement” for lecturers. Maya Goodfellow, a researcher at the School of Oriental and African Studies here in London, tweeted that the deal was tantamount to “selling out members”.

With the pay of academics under such scrutiny, critics have questioned the ethics of vice-chancellors being able to charge for such luxury items under expenses. Salaries for vice-chancellors have been as high as £350,000 in recent years, as in the case of Louise Richardson (Cambridge) or Edward Byrne (KCL), according to The Financial Times.

A spokesperson for the UCU said “It is time for proper scrutiny of vice-chancellors’ pay and perks, which have embarrassed the sector for months. The current set up is clearly not fit for purpose and the onus is now on the Office for Students to deliver on proper regulation.”

Ella Harvey, newly elected VP Welfare of Queen Mary Students Union was unsurprised:

“It reflects a wider imbalance of power in our higher education system. This really shows when you see how much solidarity there is between students and staff who are striking. At least at my university, we have united over issues such as bursary cuts, sexual assault on campus as well as pensions.

But these issues aren’t secrets, we’ve wanted to act on this for a long time, but we’re able to use the momentum from this to change the debate so that it is about these wider issues. Yes, the focus is on pensions but this is the tip of the iceberg on how flawed and profit driven higher education is.”

Ella Harvey, newly elected VP Welfare of Queen Mary Students Union

This really shows when you see how much solidarity there is between students and staff who are striking.

Meanwhile Robert Halfon, Chairman of the Commons’ Education Select Committee in Westminster, said “this is public money, and just as it’s a requirement now for MPs to publish their expenses, universities should be subject to the same procedures” the Independent reported.

Comments from politicians have been particularly significant, given the MPs expenses scandal of 2009, which certainly contributed to the erosion of public trust in institutions of government. Some are suggesting that this could be a ‘duckhouse moment’ for the higher education sector, referring to the £1,600 of public money claimed for a floating duck island by MP Sir Peter Viggers. By coincidence, this is the same amount of money claimed by Max Lu, new vice-chancellor of the University of Surrey, to relocate his dog from Australia to the UK, as mentioned above.

At a time of tension over the future of university education in the United Kingdom, it remains to be seen whether this is indeed a ‘duckhouse moment’ for universities.

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