Staff Travel Expenses Hit £3.5 million

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The University of Southampton spent over £3.5m on staff travel expenses in the 2009 financial year, the Wessex Scene can reveal. The majority of this money went on air travel, both international and domestic.

The University defend the spending, stating that the cost is a justified part of the University’s role as an international institution. Staff are often involved in international research projects, which are encouraged to ensure the institution retains ‘global presence and visibility’.

However, at the University Council meeting last May, Vice Chancellor Don Nutbeam announced that travel expenses should be reduced by ‘strictly enforcing rules on travel policy’. Despite these comments, the University deny that travel rules were being breached.

A spokesperson commented that, “while in one economic climate, it may be acceptable to go on a business trip, when that climate changes, it may not be acceptable. But there was no implication that staff were ‘flouting’ the rules.”

Over a quarter of a million pounds were spent in 2009 on domestic air travel. University Director of Finance, Malcolm Ace defended this financially, stating that the sometimes higher cost must be considered along with the savings made in only losing staff for one day and not paying for overnight accommodation.

However domestic air travel is heavily criticised as a major and unnecessary source of carbon emissions. President of Green Action, David McKay remarked that “With both budget cuts and the escalating climate crisis the university needs to seriously revise their transport policy and minimise their use of domestic flights wherever possible.  The Transition University Southampton initiative, which is supported by Green Action along with many other groups on campus, is campaigning for the university to do this by both encouraging public transport for reasonable distances and pioneering the use of videoconferencing as a cheap and low-carbon alternative.”

Ace agreed that the environmental impact of domestic flights should be taken into account, but defended the expenditure, stating that “on the basis of costs and the environmental impact, staff should evaluate other modes of travel. But very often, at a time when staff are under great time pressures, the prospect of one day away from the University rather than two will make air travel the preferred option.”

As figures are only available through the freedom of information act, direct comparisons with other universities are difficult to make. However, the Wessex Scene has learned that the University of Birmingham saw their travel expenses for the same period only just break £1m. Birmingham have 6050 staff, as compared to Southampton’s 4921. As a fellow member of the Russell Group, it has similar research engagements, and therefore acts as proof that costs could be reduced.

The Wessex Scene has also obtained figures from the University of Kent (3725 staff), who spent £1.7 million and the University of Surrey (2610 staff) who spent £1.34 million. Neither of these Universities compare favorably with Southampton. The University of Manchester was unable to calculate their figures, while King’s College London did not respond. On the information we have therefore, it is fair to conclude Southampton’s spending is comparatively high.

While the University hopes to introduce savings through new technology, Malcolm Ace noted that any savings made “must not be at the expense of the University’s research and other interests in working nationally and internationally with other Universities and the external sponsors of our work.”

However, with every aspect of Higher Education spending thrown sharply into the spotlight in the aftermath of the Comprehensive Spending Review, it is important that every expense be controlled and analysed. Students will hope that staff travel expenses are as much a part of this as other cost cutting measures adopted.

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Discussion1 Comment

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    Speaking as a research-active member of staff, I think this article needs to take into account that most of this travel is paid out of external research funding from a variety of sources, almost all of which have pre-determined budgets for travel, which can’t even be transferred to other parts of the research project budget, let alone to other parts of the university budget, e.g. to help with teaching and infrastructure. If the money wasn’t spent on travel it would just go back to the funding agency. In fact, the money spent on travel may even contribute towards improving other aspects of the university, because the university charges overheads on all research grants (usually at some fixed percentage) which go back into central funds, helping to pay for administration and even subsidise teaching budgets. These overheads are especially important in research-heavy departments where teaching costs are usually high, e.g. due to lab space and equipment costs). But the overheads can only be charged on expenses incurred, so money not spent is money actually wasted.

    The fact that Southampton spends more per staff member than Birmingham on travel suggests that we get significantly more research funding than they do which is surely a good thing!

    On the other hand, I agree that we need to be more careful and aware of the environmental damage caused by air travel. It’s part of the international nature of research these days that most travel is necessary. If we didn’t do it we wouldn’t be competitive in winning the research grants which help bolster our teaching and admin budgets – a significant change in global research culture is needed to fix this, with better development of video-conferencing etc. (it is currently far too unreliable!). But the university could still take steps to mitigate the environmental cost with clearer rules and guidelines about travel methods and also carbon offsetting (which isn’t currently required for air travel, but I think could legitimately be paid from the travel grants).

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