Money is tight everywhere. What raises most people’s hackles is when waste is identified – particularly when this could be reinvested in the education system.

It’s been a memorable news week, for those looking for the establishment to share in the pain of the Recession. First it was news that the Royal Household told to tighten it’s pursestrings, then news that Cambridge University has also managed to land itself in a bit of hot water.

Wine

The result of a Freedom of Information request from the Telegraph revealed something rather extraordinary – that last year the university spent almost £3 million on wine to serve in the dining halls.  Details are somewhat sketchy, but claims are that the vast majority of the wine being served at private functions for university fellows, with a smaller percentage being served in dining halls for undergraduate dinners.

The figure is closing in on 300 student’s worth of tuition, which is quite staggering – even more staggering when you realise that is the equivalent of £7,000 a day.  Over the last three academic years, the 30 colleges of Cambridge has spent a total close to £8 million on wine, with one college refusing to provide information.

Of course, such a revelation has not been without controversy.  A first-year undergraduate at King’s College was quoted as saying that with rent increases in the colleges being unreasonable, it would appear that fair access to students is coming secondary to ‘the wine cellar.’

Kings College has been frequently criticised by the University’s Living Wage Campaign for not paying staff what would be described as an adequate wage – the college has always disputed the figures provided.  However, if true, it does represent an underlying problem in some universities across the country – they’re not being used for their intended purpose; a place of learning.

So what has been the official response from the University?  Well, a spokeswoman said that the “Colleges of the University of Cambridge run substantial catering and conference businesses and this expenditure reflects that.

From a student’s point of view, another student managed to fairly weigh up both sides of the argument, saying that “we have to take in to account that some of the money was spent on wine for the college’s catering and investment businesses, so in the long run it will come back to the students.  But the proportion that’s spent on free wine for fellows is problematic…”

So, we’ve got conferencing facilities, catering, free wine for fellows… It almost seems like we’re losing the plot a bit when it comes to education.  As far as I can remember, universities were about the students and education – OK, so we’ve got Student Union bars and nightclubs but that’s all part of the experience.  What I don’t expect people think is the ‘student experience’ is wine for fellows and conferences for private functions, many of which don’t involve the students.  Does seem all a little ‘missing the point’ to me.

Sometimes, it can be rather embarrassing.  The other week the Student’s Union at the university I attend, University of Lincoln, hosted a meal for several Nigerian delegates for reasons I still can’t fathom.  In doing so, the SU managed to upset pretty much anyone with a conscience, many finding the move inappropriate in light of the fierce laws regarding homosexual behaviour.

You see, it doesn’t just have to be money that causes a bit of outrage – though I suspect that’s what the Student Union were after.  In their apology to the students, the officers claimed ignorance on the issue, stating they weren’t aware of the issue until after the event – even though it was a highly spoken-about topic for the previous week.  Some will do anything to justify a bit of extra money now and again.

Is it just me or do these exams reinforce the painful notion that universities are little more than businesses?

It would seem that even Cambridge are inclined to agree somewhat – a spokesperson for the university also added that “the cost and funding of undergraduate teaching is an entirely separate matter from college’s catering and conference activities, which are substantial.  Tuition fees are exclusively spent on education purposes…. Even with a £9,000 fee, the university faces a shortfall of around £5,000.”

Several potential reasons exist for shortfalls, such as Vice Chancellors getting paid outrageous sums of money and various prestige projects in different colleges – not to mention the odd dinner for delegates.  When it comes down to it, universities are having to find more and more ways to fill voids – hence catering and conferencing.  Of course, balance it out with free wine and other delights and you do wonder what the university is actually trying to achieve.

Simon Renton, president of the University and College Union, added that “It’s poor public relations at the very least, but it pales into insignificance compared to, say, building projects that some university management teams have chosen to engage in during recent years. At the same time, staff in higher education have in effect had a pay cut of 13% since 2008.” A very valid point, and it goes some way of explaining why we’re hearing about strikes by university staff.  It’s got to hurt, doesn’t it?  When you’re serving large amounts of wine to fellows and you’re struggling to make a decent wage because universities care more about what gets given out at the top.

I realise universities have to pay bills, but when your main priority looks like it’s with entertaining of dignitaries and catering for different individuals, it is perhaps time to re-evaluate.

To quote Frank Furedi, professor of sociology at the University of Kent “…we should ask important questions about the role of universities.  Are they there to educate people, or are they becoming focussed on entertainment?”

Perhaps universities need to think more and more about educational facilities like library upgrades rather than the wine.  After all, if you’re a student or member of staff, it must be quite damning to see.

No wonder people think they’re getting a raw deal.

 

 

 

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Emma