Senior managers at University College London are considering nearly doubling student numbers as part of a controversial expansion plan that some fear may be putting finances under strain, Times Higher Education has learned.
A number of sources have confirmed that one of the options under consideration is to grow student numbers to 60,000, which would be made possible by UCL East, the university’s planned new 11-acre campus in Stratford, East London.
Such growth would make UCL by far the most populous campus in the UK, overtaking the University of Manchester. In 2014-15, UCL had about 35,000 students, according to the Higher Education Statistics Agency, while Manchester had about 38,500.
A spokeswoman for the university said that it was “undertaking longer-term thinking – 20 years and beyond – about its future size and shape”.
“This process is at an early stage and no specific figure is under consideration at the present time,” she said.
There is also disquiet within UCL over what pressure a new £280 million loan from the European Investment Bank (EIB) will place on finances. The university announced the loan in April as part of a £1.25 billion building programme to develop its existing Bloomsbury campus and create UCL East, which is set to open in 2019.
THE has been told that at a recent academic board meeting, the provost, Michael Arthur, defended the loan, telling academics that it was borrowed at such "ridiculously cheap rates" that his finance director "won’t tell me how low as it’s supposed to be a secret so our competitors can’t find out”.
Minutes of UCL’s finance committee show that there were calls for the capital building programme to be slowed down so that the university could hit a 5.5 per cent budget surplus target deemed necessary to achieve financial stability. The surplus in 2014-15 was 2.5 per cent.
At a meeting on 2 July last year, “a question was raised as to whether the UCL capital programme should be slowed down in order to achieve savings and increase the surplus in the short-term”, the minutes say.
“It was noted however, that the senior management team had made the judgement that a delay in the capital programme would jeopardize the delivery of UCL2034 [UCL’s strategic plan to 2034],” they say.
A UCL spokeswoman said that with the EIB loan the university could choose whether to take a fixed or floating rate of interest (or a combination of the two), which were currently 2.57 and about 1 per cent, respectively. Professor Arthur has also written that the surplus is expected to nearly double this financial year.
There is concern within UCL about whether the loan was signed off without the details having been first approved by the university’s council. It was announced in April, but according to an EIB spokesman was signed in two tranches, in December 2015 and February 2016.
According to a UCL spokeswoman, the “execution” of the loan was “authorised by [council] chair’s action” and “reported to the February council meeting”.
UCL’s statutes says that the chair can take action on behalf of the council “in any matters being in their opinion either urgent (but not of sufficient importance to justify a special meeting of the appropriate body) or non-contentious”.