Some universities are spending tens of thousands of pounds on hiring consultants to advise them on public relations, marketing and branding, a Times Higher investigation has revealed.
Documents released under the Freedom of Information Act show that some institutions have called in consultants numerous times in the past two years, while others have shunned them completely.
Big spenders include Leeds University, which paid out more than £150,000 on consultancy projects since January 2003; the University of Central England, which spent nearly £89,000; and Oxford University, which spent more than £65,000. Birmingham University hired consultants on nine different occasions over the past two years, but it declined to disclose how much the contracts cost.
At the other end of the spectrum, Bristol, Cardiff and Westminster universities and the London School of Economics all said they did not use consultants during this period.
Some academics are sceptical about whether hiring consultants is money well spent.
Gary Day, lecturer in English at De Montfort University, said: "Presumably we can only trust consultants to tell us what to do now. They know things in the way we in academia - stuck in our ivory towers - don't."
Nancy Rothwell, vice-president for research at Manchester University, agreed that consultants had a bad name in academia. But she said this attitude might need to change. "Having seen some really good ones, I realise they can be very valuable."
Professor Rothwell said big universities should have a great deal of expertise in-house, but Manchester found that it needed some outside help in the lead-up to its merger.
A Leeds representative said: "We have commissioned comprehensive surveys of what students want and value in a university rather than rely on anecdotal evidence. Students are more likely to give a balanced view to an external consultant through a non-attributable survey than a university-led one."
One trend is the growing use of consultancies to handle the media. UCE called in consultants last year to draft a "crisis management plan", detailing how it should deal with the media in an "emergency". Oxford has a contract with Quiller Consultants to provide advice on press and public relations matters.
Simon Oldknow, education brand director at consultants Euro RSCG Riley, said: "On occasion, people like us can go in and break difficult news - that is hard to do if you are inside."