Public Trac of institutions' spending proposed

Details of how much money individual universities spend on research and teaching could be made public under proposals designed to create transparency in institutions' reporting of the costs of their activities.

October 25, 2012

A consultation on the Transparent Approach to Costing (Trac), the method by which universities inform the Higher Education Funding Council for England about their research, teaching and other expenses, will also consider whether to make details of individual course costs freely available.

The consultation will focus on four themes: the needs of stakeholders; burdens and benefits for the higher education sector; opportunities to streamline Trac; and providing greater transparency for taxpayers.

"In recognition of the huge investment in higher education by students and taxpayers, there is a clear need for assurance they are obtaining value for money," the consultation document states. It also says it will "consider options for greater disaggregation of Trac data to produce data on...costs at course level".

This would open up the possibility for prospective students, now paying fees of up to £9,000 a year, to see exactly how much is spent by universities on particular disciplines. However, such data are not currently collected by Trac.

Such an undertaking would be "incredibly difficult", said Heather Williams, Hefce finance consultant and author of the consultation.

"You would need to have much more detailed data and, in particular, you would need far more detailed time-allocation data from academic staff, which in itself would be immensely burdensome to collect," she added.

Academics are already unhappy about how much time they have to spend on Trac-related paperwork.

However, Ms Williams did confirm that options including more comprehensive data capture were being considered, and that feedback would be sought from higher education institutions.

More likely, according to Hefce, is the publication of aggregated institution data showing how much each university spends on its research, teaching and other activities.

"That has not been done before, and it will be quite sensitive," Ms Williams said. "One issue we are still to explore is whether there are implications in terms of greater competition and limitations on the amount of data that can be published due to competition law."

This is the first time Trac has faced a large-scale overhaul since it was introduced in 1999.

The 2011 higher education White Paper, Students at the Heart of the System, triggered the review after it called on Hefce to look into how the method could be "radically streamlined".

chris.parr@tsleducation.com.

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