Colleges spend royally on entertaining their guests

25th March 2016 at 00:00
Huge bills for hosting visitors prompt union to claim that principals are spending too lavishly

principals have been accused of treating colleges like “royal courts”, after figures obtained by TESS suggested that FE institutions have spent around £300,000 on entertaining guests in the past two years.

The total bill for entertainment over that period is actually believed to be higher than the figures show, as many of the colleges questioned said that such spending was part of “internal” departmental budgets and details could not be given.

The huge costs were revealed as a result of a freedom of information request, which showed that there were a number of particularly big spenders: City of Glasgow College accounted for £157,403 of the total reported spending – more than half.

The college has spent £36,437 on hospitality and entertainment for guests and staff so far in 2015-16, and it splashed out more than £120,000 in 2014-15 – an average of £10,000 a month.

Last autumn, the college attracted criticism for its spending, including on a lavish opening ceremony for its new campus costing £31,000.

Fife College spent £104,899 in nearly two years, while Glasgow Clyde College estimated £15,000 was spent on entertainment.

Overall, the 21 colleges which responded to the freedom of information request spent £294,046 in 2014-15 and 2015-16 – although 13 colleges said no money was spent, or internal departmental budgets were used so they could not give figures.

A spokesman for the Unison union, which represents support staff in colleges, said that a lavish entertainment budget in FE was “a scandal when the sector is rife with unfair pay”. He described a recent Burns supper event at City of Glasgow’s new Riverside Campus, where part of the river Clyde was illuminated purple, and said that “principals should be red-faced for treating colleges like the royal court”.

Officials at the college said that the “intelligent lighting system” at the campus allowed the college to light up the front of the building in a range of colours.

‘Students are suffering’

NUS Scotland president Vonnie Sandlan said that it was disappointing to see some colleges spending hundreds of thousands of pounds of public money on entertaining guests, while budgets and courses were being cut.

She added: “Every area of education is feeling the squeeze right now, and few areas are feeling it more than students’ pockets.

“That’s why colleges need to think more carefully about how they spend their money, and ensure they’re using it to address the annual shortfall of millions of pounds that exists in the college student support system.”

A spokesman for the EIS teaching union said: “Where a publicly funded body such as a college is concerned, it is important this type of expenditure is properly controlled so that costs are kept to a minimum.”

Scotland’s colleges have seen funding reduced significantly in recent years, from £580 million in 2010-11 to £530 million this year. Many colleges are therefore trying to develop new income streams – from partnerships with businesses to international recruitment.

A spokesperson for the Scottish Funding Council told TESS that investing in partnerships and engagement with other organisations was important. But the SFC stressed that these arrangements would be expected to deliver value for money.

City of Glasgow College said that, as the largest college in Scotland, it placed great value in attracting and enhancing partnerships across the UK and internationally.

“Our global reputation means that we rightly invest in corporate hospitality within hundreds of events each year in support of our entrepreneurial endeavours to diversify and maximise our income, lessening pressure on the public purse,” a spokesman said.

“In addition, these events deepen our engagement with employers, which result in real jobs for our students. It is right, too, that we celebrate the success of the 32,000 currently studying with us at graduation ceremonies.”

A spokeswoman for Fife College stressed that colleges would have different interpretations of hospitality, use different budgets and have different ways of collating figures on the amounts spent. Therefore, she said, comparing colleges’ figures was not fair.

She added: “This figure quoted is made up of a wide range of events and activities including business gatherings, community liaison, student events such as the graduation and a host of meetings with partners where we welcome external visitors to the college.

“These activities are vital to the success of the college post-merger and are tightly monitored to be within budget and also to offer value for money.”


‘It’s only tea and biscuits’

While varying definitions of “entertainment” could be a factor, the huge disparity in spending between colleges shows that there are different approaches when it comes to engaging with visitors in an era of tight budgets.

In its response to the TESS freedom of information request, Ayrshire College said that its principal did have guests and visitors at the college campuses, and “will offer them hospitality in the form of tea and biscuits or cakes if the students have been baking”.

Lews Castle College UHI stated it did not provide entertainment for guests or visitors, “though tea and biscuits may have been provided in some meetings”.

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