England’s funding council placed an observer on the University of Northampton’s board to “protect past and future public investment” after the institution set out plans to take on nearly £300 million of debt to build a new campus.
Minutes from meetings of Northampton’s board of governors, obtained by Times Higher Education under the Freedom of Information Act, also show that the Higher Education Funding Council for England issued the university with a risk assessment “which would place it in an appropriate risk category in light of the borrowing arrangements”.
Hefce also put 80 questions to the university after its initial request to take on the borrowing.
Northampton, which has an annual income of about £100 million, announced in November that it would borrow £290 million to fund the new Waterside campus – £230 million via a public bond issued with the help of a Treasury guarantee and £60 million from the Public Works Loan Board. The university was required to apply to Hefce to take on the borrowing, with permission being granted by the funding council’s board in May.
Nick Petford, the Northampton vice-chancellor, has called the Waterside project a “once-in-a-lifetime opportunity” to deliver a 21st-century campus.
But the University and College Union branch passed a motion of no confidence in Professor Petford in November, saying that the university was “incurring significant debt based on risky assumptions about future student numbers and fee levels”.
Minutes from a meeting of Northampton’s governors on 22 January last year show that Hefce “had appointed the accountants BDO to undertake due diligence and report on the university’s proposals”.
After Northampton had made its submission to Hefce to be granted permission to borrow, a 26 February governors’ meeting heard that “a set of 80 or so questions had been raised by Hefce which the [university’s] team were responding to specifically”.
At the 25 June board of governors meeting, after the Hefce board had granted permission for the borrowing, Steve Egan, the funding council’s deputy chief executive, “explained that Hefce would be an observer at the board and potentially other committee meetings, primarily through himself”. The “role of Hefce in attendance was fundamentally to allow it to protect past and future public investment as well as to give due attention to the student interest”, the minutes add.
Mr Egan also “confirmed that the Hefce board had agreed the parameters of the university’s business plan which had flexibility within its scope; with trigger points for alerts…being set, should there be a risk of the parameters being breached”.
THE asked Hefce at how many governing bodies it is currently an observer, but Hefce would not provide the information.
Northampton initially refused to release any minutes from governors’ meetings, saying that they were exempt from release under the Freedom of Information Act because of “commercial interests”. But the university released the minutes after THE appealed the refusal.
The university also said that “a process is being developed” to publish minutes online three months after they are approved.
Lesson learned: media interest in v-C’s drinking and crowdsurfing ‘regrettable’
The University of Northampton’s chair of governors called for “learning points” after an incident that saw Nick Petford, the vice-chancellor, down drinks and crowdsurf at a student event.
Professor Petford’s behaviour at a student sports awards evening in March last year prompted one student to christen him “the Wolf of Northampton”, in reference to the lifestyle of Jordan Belfort depicted in the film The Wolf of Wall Street.
After photos of Professor Petford and another senior university manager at the event were published in the national press, the University and College Union branch accused him of promoting “a laddish culture at the expense of Northampton’s reputation”. However, there was support for him from students at the time.
The incident was discussed at a meeting of Northampton’s board of governors on 30 April, minutes released to Times Higher Education under the Freedom of Information Act reveal.
Milan Shah, the chair of governors at the time, “noted the regrettable media interest and publicity” arising from the student sports awards. “This had arisen from a chain of events including the professional style of the comedian booked by students for the event, the actions of senior officers participating, the student tweets, the open letter from the UCU local branch, the sale of photographs and the reporting of journalists.”
Mr Shah “highlighted the value of taking learning points from the situation and invited individual board members to review for themselves whether the publicity was in the best interests of the university and, if not, to what extent each stage in the chain of events had contributed to its causation”.
He also “reported that any issues of conduct would be followed up through appropriate HR procedures”.
The university declined to comment.
Some in the sector have argued that criticism of Professor Petford was unfair, and that many vice-chancellors join in with student activities at such events.