England’s higher education funders are facing questions over a grant of nearly £3 million to support the development of a for-profit “university academy” established by former Manchester United footballers.
Just weeks before it was wound up, the Higher Education Funding Council for England approved a payment of £2.9 million to Lancaster University to subsidise curriculum development for Trafford-based University Academy 92, which is being set up in partnership with ex-internationals Gary and Phil Neville, Ryan Giggs, Paul Scholes and Nicky Butt.
The institution will welcome its first students in September 2019, offering Lancaster degrees in business, media and sport, and is part of a wider redevelopment project, also including student housing, led by the “Class of ’92” sportsmen.
But the University and College Union questioned why the initiative deserved so much public money given the wealth of its founders, who have developed lucrative business careers after their retirement, and the profits that they hope to draw from it. Other partners in the venture include Microsoft and Trafford Council.
“Instead of doling out public money to grease the wheels of for-profit enterprises at a time of record student debt, the government should be supporting our public institutions and students,” said Sally Hunt, the UCU general secretary.
Hefce did not publicise details of the grant, which was finalised on 22 February and is now being monitored by the funding council’s successor agency, the Office for Students. An OfS spokesman said that information about several projects supported by Hefce’s Catalyst Fund were not uploaded to the council’s website before it closed at the end of March.
Details of the grant eventually emerged in a press release issued by UA92 that announced that professional services firm KPMG would sponsor the academy’s social mobility strategy.
An OfS spokesman said that Hefce judged Lancaster’s application “to be merited in terms of academic development, curriculum co-design with industry, and the opportunities it would offer for students, and to be proportionate given the scale of the overall development”.
“Projects funded by the Catalyst Fund often involved a range of university, public and private partners and investors. Lancaster University has the control and ultimate accountability for academic matters at the proposed academy, including quality, programme approval and specification, assessment and progression. The university is wholly responsible for the delivery of the Catalyst-funded project,” the spokesman said.
A UA92 spokeswoman said: “The project is a genuine partnership to form a new higher education organisation and will involve investment of various kinds from Lancaster University, partner organisations and private individuals. The project wouldn’t be possible without this type of investment package.”