Jitters over cash delay forecasts

July 5, 1996

Last Friday was the deadline for English universities to file financial forecasts with the funding council. Not all met the deadline. With a cash crisis looming, THES reporters look at the sums and who carries the can when they do not add up

A number of institutions are late in completing their financial forecasts, funding council chiefs revealed this week. Those with governing body meetings in July have decided not to submit provisional forecasts as in previous years because of the funding crisis.

The Higher Education Funding Council for England agreed they could skip last Friday's official deadline and wait until mid-July to submit their full forecasts.

The council's finance heads were quick to play down the significance of the hold-ups, arguing that they were merely recognising differences in institutions' governing body meeting cycles.

But they refused to say exactly how many were submitting late forecasts on the grounds that this might encourage institutions to miss deadlines in future.

When all forecasts are in they are expected to show that the sector has barely managed to break even despite emergency staff cuts. Earlier figures provided by institutions shortly after last November's Budget showed the sector in overall deficit for the first time.

Ian Lewis, the council's head of finance, said this week that the days of English universities and colleges operating in surplus had gone.

It will take the council weeks fully to analyse the forecasts. An early view on what they mean will go to a board meeting in September. A computer analysis will go to the council's November meeting.

The forecasts should give a picture of an institution's financial position and how it intends to operate over the next five years.

"It is for institutions to assess realistically what their income levels will be, and how they can contain expenditure within those levels. They will need to show what assumptions they have made to arrive at their predictions," Mr Lewis explained.

Institutions showing a deficit that cannot be covered by reserves will need to implement a recovery plan within three years. But the funding council will home in on problems before that.

"We pick up on any concerns through continuous monitoring. We are looking not just at the recurrent position, but also the underlying financial strength in terms of cash balances and trends. We take into account the reliability of an institution's financial systems and their forecasting track record," Mr Lewis added.

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