Risks of Northampton plan remain secret to stop nosy press

University and Hefce refuse FoI requests over multimillion-pound funding deal

February 19, 2015

The University of Northampton has refused to release the risk assessment it was given by England’s funding council after outlining plans to take on £300 million of debt, as disclosure could “generate unjustified press interest” and harm student recruitment.

The Higher Education Funding Council for England also refused to release the report on Northampton, as to do so “would give a commercial advantage to competitors”.

Hefce gives every institution it funds an annual assessment that judges it to be “at higher risk” or “not at higher risk”.

The funding council placed an observer on Northampton’s board in June 2014 to “protect past and future public investment” after the institution set out plans to issue a public bond to fund its new Waterside campus, according to minutes from university governors meetings previously obtained by Times Higher Education under the Freedom of Information Act.

The minutes also showed that Hefce issued the university with a risk assessment “which would place it in an appropriate risk category in light of the borrowing arrangements”.

But both Hefce, whose board granted Northampton permission to issue the bond, and the university have refused requests from THE under the Freedom of Information Act to release a copy of the risk assessment.

The £230 million bond, the first to be issued by a university using a Treasury guarantee, is seen as large, given Northampton’s annual income of about £100 million a year.

A response from Madeleine Atkins, Hefce’s chief executive, to the THE FoI request confirms that the funding council wrote to Northampton in July 2014.

But she cites two exemptions in the Freedom of Information Act 2000 that allow information to be withheld. One is Section 43(2) of the act, which says information can be withheld if disclosure would, or would be likely to, “prejudice the commercial interests of any person”.

Professor Atkins says in the response to THE: “It is our view that disclosing this information could potentially prejudice the commercial interests of the University of Northampton by revealing details that would give a commercial advantage to competitors.”

A Hefce spokesman said that requests for other university risk letters would be handled “in the same way”.

Northampton’s refusal notice says that releasing the information would “generate unjustified press interest which would divert management time away from the structured project planning for a campus move and misinterpretation within a news story may potentially lead to an impact on recruitment”.

It also says it is relying on the Section 43(2) exemption “because release would give rival institutions a competitive advantage”.

The decision to go to the bond markets to finance the university’s redevelopment project is addressed by Nick Petford, Northampton’s vice-chancellor, in an opinion article in this week’s THE, in which he argues that universities have “fought shy of capital markets” but that “traditional ways of project financing are no longer up to the job”.

He adds: “The new funding model we have pioneered has the potential to revolutionise financing options for others.”

john.morgan@tesglobal.com

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