The buildings that form our University campus are ageing, and more are being constructed. With £450 million being invested in campus since 2009, the cost of maintaining and expanding our campus takes up a sizeable portion of the University’s expenditure. Be it the cumulative, minor costs of general upkeep, the sprucing up of offices, or the significant investments in new construction projects, these costs may not be at the forefront of students’ minds. However, with student fees financing the majority of the University’s expenses, it is fundamental that the student community to know that those responsible for this work are transparent with decisions made and can justify the use of said money.

The group behind the strategic planning and management of our University property is the Department of Estates. They handle the procurement of all contractors for construction projects and deal with maintenance issues at all levels. The SU has listed the improvement of efficiency and transparency of the Estates Department in their top 10 for this academic year. With this being the case, and the historic governance issues at the University, Bath Time decided to explore expenditures and consider the transparency of those behind the maintenance and development of campus buildings.

The small things

The Department of Estates are responsible for the upkeep and decoration of University buildings. This can include installing new windows, painting rooms, and hanging (or removing) infamous portraits. In order to manage this, they charge other internal departments and the SU a fee for work done. This is often negotiated for each project, or for more regular tasks, fixed prices are applied.

In a recent email to staff spanning University departments, Estates stated that their one-time fee for plant installations, which included maintenance, was resulting in a £40,000 annual deficit in plant maintenance. To combat this, the initial £100 fixed charge for the installation of a plant is maintained, but in addition to this, departments now pay an annual fee of £230 to maintain high maintenance plants and £150 for low maintenance installations.

The highlight of student life for many of us is one of two events; Freshers’ Week or Summer Ball. Unfortunately, these events do come at a cost, with FW wristbands leaving us £65 out of pocket, and Summer Ball tickets £47. While some of the money made from this is used to hire Scouting for Girls, Pixie Lott, and other big names, a large portion is spent on more mundane activities. Estates have previously charged over £13,000 to lay the flooring (owned by the SU) in Founders’ Hall, and replace some broken pieces. Though this cost used to be shared with the University, now that Dame Glynis, ex-Vice Chancellor, doesn’t deliver a speech during Freshers’ week, the SU is going to have to take on the whole cost. In addition, this year, the estimated price for the laying and lifting of the floor has increased by over £3000. Meanwhile, the ticket price has stayed the same. Increases in costs such as these, which the SU have little control over, diminishes the budget available for other aspects which make Freshers’ Week so special.

This is a running theme with Estates; they charge the SU a small fortune to simply put a few screws in the wall and hang an item that the SU already owns, or something to a similar effect. As the SU building is technically owned by the University, the SU have to use Estates, or a list of approved contractors, to do such work. For example, screwing in two pin-boards cost almost £30. This doesn’t seem to match up to the cost of a couple of screws and University wages for what should be under an hour’s work. Similarly, affixing four knife racks in the Plug kitchen cost £87, and when Estates went to evaluate the archery field to see if inflatables could go up there, they charged the SU £40 for the evaluation. The SU has so far paid approximately £79,000 to Estates for work done in 2018.

There are multiple potential reasons that this could be the case. One pressure on the inflated prices experienced by the SU is the potential for value added tax to be duplicated within one project. This occurs because the Department of Estates hire contractors or buy materials and pay VAT once, which they then charge the SU for, at which point VAT is charged again.

Earlier this semester, the SU renovated the cafe in Virgil Building and introduced Flo’s Café

. The space underwent a redesign and new furniture was installed. The initial quote received by the SU enabled this project to be completed on a budget of around £1000; however, Estates insisted that the SU use one of their own approved suppliers despite their initial contractor having all the relevant Risk Assessment and Method Statement documents. This led to the plans being unaffordable within the allocated budget and, in turn, seating was compromised. Complaints followed from students who rely on this hub as a city base and now can’t always be guaranteed a space.

Should internal charges exist at all?

The internal charges, while on a surface level may appear to be a good way of organising funds within an organisation, can lead to clunky, inefficient, and costly administration systems working to move money around within a single organisation. Within our University, the “Agresso” system used can cause delays of up to 8 months for invoices to be raised, creating difficulties for staff members managing budgets and cash flow worries for University departments and the SU. This all raises the question of whether internal charges need to exist at all. An alternative could be for the University to simply manage budgets so that departments don’t need to charge each other for work, with effective communication and good working relationships between departments – this could save significant amounts of money on unnecessary administrative tasks and generally improve the efficiency of the University.

cc: University of Bath

Construction & Procurement

A large portion of what Estates do is the procurement or selection of contractors to work on the campus’ biggest building projects. For example: the School of Management building with a budget of £70m. When investigating this building for our previous issue, we investigated the procurement process for the contractors working on the project, and it was confirmed that this was “all down to Estates”.

Bath Time filed a Freedom of Information request, asking for the names of contract holders over the value of £20,000, and a list of the top 20 contractors by value of contracts received over the past 20 years. The University declined to name contractors on the grounds that it could open the University to be a victim of fraudulent crimes and that the information would take longer or cost more than they are required to invest in responding to an FOI request, despite recognising that disclosing this information would be in the best interest of transparency.

A quarterly capital project update can be found in the minutes of University Council meetings, however, this item never provides detail above “council NOTED the update on the status of capital projects”. With minutes acting as an important tool for holding University management to account, the failure to provide more detail here provides cause for concern surrounding transparency on the issue.

Vinci & University Council

Vinci is a multinational construction company that have constructed a variety of buildings for the University. 10 West, Chancellor’s Building and Polden are the most recent projects to occupy space on campus, all with hefty sums attached. For 10W, the impressive Psychology building with grandiose decor and key card access to many of the rooms, the University paid £20 million. Slightly less was the cost of the Chancellor’s Building –  £16 million. Lastly, with its 293 en-suite bedrooms and café, the new Polden accommodation comes in at a sizeable sum of £27.5million.

The reason this draws attention (aside from price) is the regular relationship between the University and Vinci Construction UK. There are a few links between the two, predominantly through the late John Stanion, who was Chairman of Vinci plc until 2014. John also sat on the University of Bath’s Council from 2012, with various duties in the Finance Committee, Senior Academic Appointments Committee, Nominations Committee and the Remuneration Committee. When the Dame Breakwell pay scandal hit national press, this relationship was also highlighted, although it was found the Hefce (Higher Education Funding Council for England) investigation into governance did not look into Mr Stanion’s activities as he joined the remuneration committee after decisions were made on Dame Breakwell’s salary. Because of this, there was no suggestion of wrongdoing by the University or Mr Stanion within the Hefce report.

What does it all mean?

The Department of Estates is the antithesis of a student-facing department. You may see some of their staff moving chairs and hanging around the underdeck of campus – but this will likely be the most interaction you have with them. Yet, they manage the largest single-spend projects conducted by our University and maintain our ageing campus as issues arise. The sum of these activities creates a significant financial drain on University resources, a.k.a your tuition fees. The failure of Estates to be transparent in their procurement processes and decision making could be causing inefficiencies in spending and generating unnecessary cost. Without transparency, the scale of these issues cannot be identified, and change cannot be made.

As a follow up to this investigation, we asked the University a few questions. Here is a response from a spokesperson:

What steps is the University taking to ensure the utmost transparency surrounding procurement for contractors on construction projects?

The University follows public sector rules for all procurements which embed principles of fairness, transparency and value for money.

This is evidenced by public advertising of all contracts exceeding £25,000 for goods and services / £50,000 for works carried out, and our following of procurement processes that comply with UK and EU legislation.

Why do the University use internal charges despite inefficiencies of this system?

Recharging allows individual Departments to prioritise and to allocate resources in a cost-effective manner.

How does the Estates department calculate, and therefore justify, the fees it charges to other departments?

The Department of Estates does not hold a budget to carry out work required by other areas of the University. The costs of carrying out this work is passed on to the relevant department who are advised in advance, in so far as possible, of the costs likely to be incurred. Charges are calculated based on labour costs and materials used.

Glen Mcalpine

Glen Mcalpine is the Media Officer (2020/21) and was the Editor-in-Chief (2018/19) for Bath Time.

Eloise Sacares

Elle is the Online Deputy Editor (2019/20) and has been elected as News & Comment Editor (2020/21). Her work has covered thought-provoking topics of inclusivity and her candid experiences of student life.

Darcey Stickley

Darcey Stickley is a final year Spanish & Politics student and Editor-in-Chief for 2020/1.

Francesco Masala

Francesco Masala is a final year Politics and International Relations Student. He is the Bath Time Web Editor. He can be contacted at su-bathtime-online@bath.ac.uk

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