Cambridge University Fellows' multi-million pound dining expenses revealed

28 February 2013

Freedom of Information requests submitted by The Cambridge Student can reveal that total expenditure on Fellows’ dining across the university exceeded £1.9 million in the last academic year. Fellows’ dining rights form part of their remuneration rights, but the figures released to TCS suggest that some colleges spend a disproportionate amount on their Fellows food and drink.

The most exuberant spending came from Trinity College, which spent £565,092 in the year 2011-12. Its 170 fellows (and guests) ate 30,797 lunches and dinners, for which payments came out of the “College’s general funds.” This equates to almost a third of the total figure, as obtained by TCS.

The amount Trinity spent on its Fellows was nearly four times as much as the second highest spender, Jesus, who published an annual spending of £128,000. Clare Hall, the third largest investor in Fellows’ dining, has a policy in which Fellows are each entitled to a maximum of 300 meals per annum, with each formal attended counting as two meals.

Lucy Cavendish had the smallest allowance, spending just £6,121 last year. However, the College divides their Fellows into classes, and only the top brackets, A, B and C, are entitled to dine.

Not all of the colleges were able to supply a figure when asked how much they spend on Fellows’ dining independently of wider costs. St Edmund’s was one of the colleges which responded to TCS’ FOI request, stating that they are unable to differentiate between spending on Fellows’ dining and informal dining for this reason.

The costs of Fellows’ dining are difficult to consider in isolation as the money spent on the provision of meals for Fellows is part of their remuneration package. Some colleges, including Girton, Robinson, and King’s, fully cover the costs of Fellow’s formals to “compensate” for the pay freeze within the Higher Education sector.

For a number of colleges, dining rights are an explicit part of the academic pay package; Downing College has stated that their allowance of 7 meals per week is a “benefit-in-kind and therefore part of their remuneration.” At Churchill, depending on the nature of the Fellowship in question, dining is described as part of “Fellowship rights, rewarding them for their contribution to the College.”

The discrepancies in Formal rights have come at a time when wider issues in employment rights at the University are under scrutiny. The Equal Pay Review in 2012 showed significant wage gaps between male and female members of academic staff, with women earning on average £8,540 less per annum than men, making up only 101 places out of the University’s 611 employees in the top wage bracket (see TCS ‘Cambridge University pay review’ 17/12/12).

A study by Philip Altbach, director of the Center for International Higher Education at Boston College, published a damning review last year of academic pay in general, stating that scholar’s remuneration packages often fail to match pay in many other professions.

He stated that although academics at the top of their field had the potential to command higher salaries, in general the academic profession was losing out to law and accountancy where salaries have risen at such a rate that the higher education sector is struggling to keep up.

His findings on academic packages put the UK in 7th place, behind Canada, Italy, South Africa, India, the US and Saudi Arabia. The amount of money invested in dining for academic staff is to encourage them to remain teaching in the UK even though the potential to earn is much higher overseas.

Altbach’s study also considered additional bonuses for academics more generally, such as pension payments, and came across more unique facets of academic pay. Some Indian academics received a bonus for having a vasectomy or hysterectomy, whilst Mexican scholars were known to receive a Christmas bonus of a frozen turkey.

Yet the discrepancies between the colleges in terms of the amount of money they spend on Fellows’ dining calls into question the fairness of the payment in-kind system. With some colleges offering Formal dining in Hall for their Fellows six nights a week, whereas others only offer Formal dining once or twice weekly, the discrepancies between the colleges become more evident.

Academics across the University invest a significant amount of time in their students, yet the fact that some colleges attribute a much higher value to that time is concerning.

However when compared to other University spending the amount spent on dining appears disproportionate. In the same year, the University spent £5.8 million on bursary provisions and £2.7 million on outreach activities.

The observation that funds for Formal generally come from endowment budgets, which look after the overall needs of academics, is further evidence that dining privileges may be used to bridge the growing pay gaps between academics and other professions in the UK.

Jenny Buckley & Maddy Bell – News Editor & Deputy News Editor