Pie chart not to sector’s taste

Full disclosure could break competition law, conference hears. David Matthews reports

May 23, 2013

Giving students a course-by-course breakdown of how their tuition fees are spent would “probably [be] illegal” because of competition laws, according to the deputy chief executive of the Higher Education Funding Council for England.

David Willetts, the universities and science minister, has said that he would like to see universities provide students with a “pie chart” breaking down where their fees go.

But Steve Egan told a conference in London on 15 May organised by the Westminster Education Forum that he did not think this would be possible because it “raises important competition issues”.

“The students themselves do not want cost information course by course. What they want to know is how much they are going to pay,” he told the event, titled Higher Education Finances - TRAC Reporting, Shared Services and Diversifying Income Streams.

After a review and consultation, Hefce announced in April that it would not release Transparent Approach to Costing (Trac) data - information on how academics spend their time, which is one way of calculating a breakdown of fee expenditure - either at an institution or course level.

The council said there was “no evidence” of demand for this information from students.

This would not be the first time that competition law has thwarted attempts to release information to students. In February, Ucas decided to withhold data on this year’s applications to individual institutions for reasons of commercial confidentiality.

Face value

Carol Prokopyszyn, assistant director with responsibility for financial reporting at the University of Leicester, told the conference that she would “object strongly” to releasing course-level data.

“You have got a conflict here between encouraging a marketplace and being completely open with everything behind it,” she said.

Using the example of Boots the chemist, where she used to work, Ms Prokopyszyn said that the company had never published the cost of making products because it was the firm’s “brand” that made them worthwhile for consumers - and the same logic applied to universities.

She said she was not sure it would “particularly help” to reveal that “it only cost 10p to make that face cream” when the customer had paid £22 for it.

Gill Ball, director of finance at the University of Birmingham and one of the Trac review members, said that 71 per cent of respondents had been against using the information to inform students about course costs. It would be “very misleading in terms of the impression it would create” and would “probably break the law”, she said.

Mr Egan also told delegates that institutions needed to better explain to the government their improvements in “business performance”. “The concern that some [in government] may have is that an excess [of] cash means that institutions have been behaving excessively or extravagantly,” he said.

david.matthews@tsleducation.com

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