University-funded trips to higher education hotspots such as Mauritius and Bangkok may be off the agenda for vice-chancellors' loved ones after a funding council edict.
Sir Alan Langlands, chief executive of the Higher Education Funding Council for England, has ordered universities to tighten up on international travel costs and jaunts for vice-chancellors' spouses amid "allegations of irregularities".
In a letter to institutions last week, Sir Alan says: "We have reviewed our guidance ... because of allegations of irregularities in the use of funds to support international travel." The guidance applies whether or not the allegations "have any foundation".
Leeds Metropolitan University faced criticism last year after it spent about £2,000 on overseas visits for Patricia Lee, the wife of Simon Lee, the vice-chancellor at the time.
And Times Higher Education has learned that Brunel University spent £14,916 on international travel, accommodation and expenses for the wife of vice-chancellor Chris Jenks between 2007 and April 2010.
There is no suggestion of financial impropriety in either case.
Sir Alan warns: "Institutions should be alert to the potential reputational damage for themselves and the higher education sector from allegations of waste or impropriety." He said public funding "should only be used to fund travel by institutions' employees on official business".
The exception should be "where, for marketing or ceremonial reasons and with the express sanction of the chair of the governing body, heads of institutions' spouses or partners are required to attend particular events".
Barbara Jenks accompanied her husband on trips to Bahrain, Taiwan, China, Canada and Mauritius.
A Brunel spokesman said: "The trip to Mauritius was paid for by Brunel's international office as this was an initiative to establish the alumni association in Mauritius. The invitation was extended to the vice-chancellor's wife at the request of the host institution."
Leeds Met paid for Ms Lee to accompany graduate trainees and staff to the Carnegie Alpenrose centre in Bavaria, and to fly to Bangkok and Ethiopia with staff and students. Professor Lee was not present on any of the trips.
Sir Alan advises universities to fund international travel only "where it is relevant to publicly funded activity", to maintain "effective internal control" over costs, and to seek value for money.
When asked for information about the "allegations of irregularities", a Hefce spokeswoman would only say: "There has been considerable recent public interest and concern about these issues, as the MPs' expenses revelations demonstrated, so we felt it was timely to update and revise our guidance."