Girton in £1 million conference shortfall

Colm Murphy 12 November 2015

The Cambridge Student exclusively reveal that some Cambridge colleges lost over a million pounds on conferencing arrangements in the period of 2011-14, whereas others made a profit of over £900,000.

However, by a quirk of accounting, some colleges appear to be running both a profit and a loss simultaneously, depending on whether or not costs associated with the upkeep of buildings are included.

Girton college recorded a loss of £1,026,000 in 2013/14, while recording average losses of just under £1 million in the previous three years.

Homerton boasted the strongest profits across the 2011-14 period with an average of £592,789, while also demonstrating the biggest single profit across the period of £927,089 in 2012/13. This is a net relief of almost £2 million with Girton.

Of all the colleges who responded to a TCS freedom of information request, Downing relied on conferencing for the largest proportion of its annual gross income – some 20.13% in 2013/14.

TCS findings clearly show a number of colleges recording losses specifically on conferencing alone.

Christ's, Downing, Emmanuel, Selwyn, Lucy Cavendish, Magdalene, Peterhouse, and Wolfson demonstrated average losses over the 2011-14 period.

However, when contacted by TCS, Nick Downer, the bursar of Selwyn College, suggested that the net figures as presented in college accounts did not necessarily paint the full picture.

He said: "Our conference business more than covers the direct costs such as food and labour but does not entirely cover the indirect costs such as the annual depreciation of buildings, which is why the loss seems so apparent.

"The College would have to pay substantially all the labour and buildings cost anyway, even if we had no conference activity, so any revenue from the activity makes a valuable contribution."

In Downing's original response to TCS's request, it declared it was generating an average net profit of more than £800,000 "on a direct cost basis" from conferencing alone. However, based on their publicly available accounts, the College generated a striking £204,000 loss in the 2013/14 financial year.

Nonetheless, even when depreciation appears to be factored in, a select number of colleges are still able to generate a consistent and healthy profit.

For King's and Pembroke, this appears in part to be the result of significant income derived from international programmes and summer schools, while Homerton has established its own private company, Colophon Limited, dedicated to conferencing services.

Christ's, Magdalene, Peterhouse, and Selwyn all make consistent losses. At these colleges, undergraduates are also required to vacate their rooms as a matter of course outside of full term.

Last year, this requirement caused considerable controversy among student activists. Campaign group Whose University? accused a number of colleges of prioritisng commercial interests over those of student welfare.

However, speaking to TCS, Homerton said that the College "seeks to operate a professional and commercial conference business as it contributes significantly to College income.

"This in turn helps to keep our student rents as low as possible and to maintain the estate."

Girton, which recorded consistent losses across the period, agreed, telling TCS: "By using College resources and facilities at a time when they are not required for core College purposes, the conference business does mitigate the costs of student accomodation and facilities."

Elsewhere, while it is standard practice for colleges to give over use of facilities free of charge to university-affiliated and faculty bodies, Murray Edwards revealed to TCS that fellows and staff may be given use of conferencing facilities free of charge, even for private events, while Newnham College granted a free pass to the Scottish National Trust.

Pembroke also detailed links of corporate partnership programmes including drugs company AstraZeneca and the BT group, though stated that the use of facilities had not been offered free of charge to any of these organisations during the period.

Additional reporting by Anna Carruthers and Colm Murphy.