University College London has said it will revise its expenses rules after hundreds of academics rebelled against what they claim are restrictions that could seriously disrupt the running of labs and treat academics as “inherently untrustworthy”.
There have also been questions over whether UCL is enforcing a tougher expenses regime to help it finance a major programme of expansion in East London.
Under the rules, which were circulated at the end of 2015 and have attracted rising criticism since, taxis cannot be taken unless there is no other form of transport available, lunches at conferences cannot cost more than £7 (including a tip) and no more than £20 can be spent per head on events like staff Christmas lunches.
The rules say tea, coffee and soft drinks are only allowed in internal meetings lasting longer than four hours, although a spokesman for UCL told Times Higher Education that this restriction would be removed.
Academics at UCL are particularly aggrieved because the rules apply to their so-called discretionary funds, which are built up by grant underspends and private sources of income such as academic prizes and guest speaking fees.
The funds – which together are thought to total at least £50 million – are “absolutely crucial” to the functioning of labs as they are “routinely” used to fund PhD students who overrun their funding period, or as bridging money when postdocs are in between grants, according to a letter sent to senior managers and signed by nearly 200 academics.
“It is essential for the future and reputation of UCL bioscience to be able to pay PhD students and post-doc salaries from discretionary funds without prior approval,” it says.
The rules “patronizingly (as if academics are inherently untrustworthy) require people to waste time getting approval in advance for any violations of the limits (including even hiring a taxi), even though the limits are so low that they very often need to be violated, and even though one often will not know that a limit has been violated until after a meal etc has happened”, it says.
It adds that the rules are so restrictive that academics will simply keep private sources of income themselves so they can spend them more freely, rather than contribute them to a UCL-managed pot.
An online poll of about 500 UCL professors in April found that more than 90 per cent said the policy had either “very much” or “moderately” affected their ability to work “efficiently and effectively”.
The letter from academics says that the purpose of the rules has not been made clear, although it suggests that they may have been brought in to “reduce the amount of borrowing needed” for UCL’s expansion in East London, for which it recently announced it had secured a £280 million loan from the European Investment Bank.
A UCL spokesman said “any suggestion that discretionary funds are being used as collateral for financing of UCL East is fanciful”.
He added that the policy on expenses was not new, but had been recirculated “effectively unchanged” to seek “greater compliance of all concerned”.
However, he said the university was revising the policy and that changes would be agreed imminently. “We acknowledge this could have been handled more sensitively,” he added.
The wording on the taxi policy would be altered, although a £105 budget for hotels outside London – which academics said was unrealistic – would be unchanged.
It was “never the intention” to imply that the rules were a “restriction on the freedom” to use discretionary accounts for purposes like employing staff, he said.