The new watchdog will also scrutinise academic grading
Universities will be forced to be more transparent under new proposals to establish an Office for Students (OfS) in April.
The office, which is set to replace the Higher Education Funding Council for England, will see the widely enjoyed autonomy that has governed the relationship between universities and ministers for decades coming under increasing scrutiny, in a bid to tackle spiralling salaries and an unprecedented rise of graduates leaving university with first-class degrees.
This follows after a Channel 4 Dispatches investigation revealed the extravagant expense accounts of some British university vice-chancellors, in which the heads of academic institutions were found to be enjoying a lavish lifestyle full of 5-star luxuries such as fine-dining and first-class air travel.
In total, it was revealed that vice-chancellors racked up an extensive bill of £8 million in expenses over a two-year period.
200 Freedom of Information requests were sent by the Dispatches team to universities in regards to their expenses claims. One university, the University of Surrey, even paid £1,600 for ‘Oscar,’ the Vice-Chancellor’s dog, to be relocated from Australia.
Whilst the University of Manchester failed to respond to the initial investigation, when contacted for comment, a university spokesperson told The Mancunion that: “In the Channel 4 programme it was noted that our university did not respond to a Freedom of Information request for expense details.
We have investigated this in detail, and have found that the information was provided by the President’s Office but due to a procedural error elsewhere in the university, the information was not provided to the journalist involved.
“The information requested has now been provided to the journalist and reveals that the expense claims and credit card payments for costs while on university business for the President amounted to £ 3,899.61 for the period 1 August 2015 to 31 July 2017.”
Controversially, the Dispatches investigation has added fuel to a growing consensus of anger around the excessive pay brackets of some British university chiefs, with Sally Hunt, leader of the University and College Union stating that “if you’re a leader, you have to be open and clear about what’s going on, and hiding in a toilet, going out for a cup of tea while your mate decides your salary — sorry, that doesn’t make sense to me.”
The investigation comes at a time when 61 universities are undergoing extensive strike action as a result of proposals that could see the average lecturer lose a total sum of £200,000 from their pension pay packet.
Last week, Theresa May branded the UK university system one of “the most expensive systems of university tuition in the world.”
Under the proposed OfS, all university governing boards will be expected to appoint students in order to challenge the PM’s accusation that the “levels of fees charged do not relate to the cost or quality of the course.”
Once the OfS is established, one of the key regulator’s assignments will be tackling the spiralling salaries of vice-chancellors. As of present, more than 60 university chiefs earn upwards of £300,000 a year.
However, under proposed measures, universities will be forced to declare the number of staff on salaries exceeding the annual sum of £100,000. For those raking in over £150,000 a year, full details will have to be provided in order to paint a ratio of the vice-chancellor’s pay to the average salary at the university.
If the university fails to accord with these measures, fines or de-registration will ensue.
The OfS will also aim to gain a greater insight into academic matters, such as the increasing number of students leaving university with first-class degrees. Last year, more than a quarter of students graduated with first-class honours.
However, with extended powers, the OfS will be able to investigate those universities who see a continuous rise in those who ascertain first-class honours degrees without good justification.
Talking to the BBC, Sir Michael Barber, chairman of the OfS stated that: “We do have powers and we won’t flinch from using them if we need to, but we’d much rather if universities ran this regulator themselves rather than [us] having to intervene. But nobody should be under any illusions; if we need to, we will.”