Welcome to 2021.
Just when you thought the world couldn’t get any crazier, along came this year. If recent months have taught us anything, it’s that however bad it seems, it can always get worse. As universities once again scramble to interpret last minute changes with non-existent guidance, many university staff are grappling with the difficulties of juggling home schooling and work once again, and all the while trying to stay healthy, both physically and mentally. Not only is there the difficulty of managing who should/should not return to campus, what (if any) fee or rent rebates to give, there is also the application admissions deadline on the horizon at the end of this month with the prospect of no A-level or Higher exams, but we’re not exactly sure what (in England at least) there will be instead.
I wish our first Digest of 2021 could bring you better news, but I hope that it at least brings you useful news and information. It includes a few items from mid-late December, just in case you missed them, as a lot seemed to be published then.
BUFDG CONFERENCE 2021 – PROGRAMME NOW LAUNCHED
The BUFDG 2021 Conference (15-19 March) is just over 8 weeks away, and we’re pleased to be able to share the full programme with you. It’s five days of interesting and informative sessions that we hope will challenge and inspire you and your team.
A couple of things to note – Firstly, we don’t expect every delegate to attend every session. We know that you’re busy and can’t afford a whole week off, so feel free to pick and choose those sessions most relevant to you. Sessions will also be recorded so, if you can’t make them ‘live’, most will be available to watch the following day, and will stay online for at least two weeks afterwards.
Secondly, you’ll notice the final 45-minute session Monday-Thursday is set aside for ‘Breakouts’, that won’t be recorded. These are smaller, informal, moderated discussion sessions and, like the rest of the conference, open to all attendees. Each will cover a different topic raised during the day, and allow attendees to discuss issues and challenges openly, ask questions of specialists, or connect with others in similar situations, or who might be able to help. We’ll be posting more details of these the week before the conference.
Booking for the conference is done on a per-institution basis. If you’d like to attend, and you’re not sure whether your institution has registered a space for you already, talk to us or to your FD.
Rent (and tuition fee) rebates continue to generate debate (including on the BUFDG discussion board). The Times Higher Education (THE) reports that several universities have announced rent rebates or reductions, and Wonkhe asks why it is so surprising that students are suggesting they shouldn’t pay for things they can’t use. The Wonkhe article also suggests student accommodation is an area that should be reviewed once the pandemic is over, and makes some high level suggestions around how could be changed to avoid some of the problems they create. THE also reports that these refund demands from students will mount to unstoppable levels and some VCs are calling for compensation from government, with different universities having entirely different financial exposure to this issue.
FUNDING AND CONSULTATIONS
The OfS wrote to English institutions on 18 December setting out their share of the additional £20 million student hardship funding, and the SFC also announced the allocations of £1.32 million additional funding in Scotland for student mental health and wellbeing support (this Scottish funding needs to be formally accepted by emailing the SFC’s Senior Budgeting & Reporting Officer by 15 January).
The DfE issued details of the restructuring regime for higher education providers in England facing severe financial difficulties as a result of the pandemic, which gives a sense of the DfE’s current thinking, even if you don’t need to avail yourself of the support.
The OfS issued four consultations in December, with the first (on a new approach to the Uni Connect programme from academic year 2021/22 to 2024/25) closing for responses on 19 January.
It’s clearly consultation and discussion season as HEFCW issued a consultation on their role in educational oversight in Wales before Christmas (which closes on 29 January), and a consultation on terms and conditions of funding on 11 January (closes 28 February); and in Northern Ireland there has been discussion of an ‘all-island’ approach to higher education, post Brexit.
There was a flurry of commentary on sector finances before the Christmas break, prompted by the OfS update on the financial sustainability of providers in England. The report remarked that “The higher education sector in England has, in general, responded well to the pandemic with sensible financial management including good control of costs”. In addition, it noted that “there continues to be significant variability between the financial performance of individual providers. Despite this, the likelihood of multiple providers exiting the sector in a disorderly way due to financial failure is low”.
In response, we added a guest blog from Richard Robinson, Head of Education at Barclays. Richard’s post is titled Why there’s every reason to be confident about the future of HE, and in it he expands on the view that despite the short-term and long-term challenges, HE in the UK is in a great position to thrive. Have a read, and remember to leave your comments in the box below. It’s a view that’s mirrored by Wonkhe’s Dave Kernohan, as well as by Andrew Burn of KPMG, writing in Wonkhe, who believes that talk of significant provider failure is wide of the mark.
While you’re thinking about the future of HE, there were a couple of major reports out from HEPI towards the end of last year. The first, which we reported back in October, Demand for Higher Education to 2035, suggests that there could be demand for an extra 350,000 places in UK HE by 2035, due to demographic changes and trends in participation rates. The report’s author, Rachel Hewitt, will be speaking at the BUFDG Conference in March to discuss the research and the implications for universities across the regions. On a shorter timescale, UCAS end-of-cycle data for 2020 showed that demand remained strong. The second HEPI report, Beyond business as usual: HE in the era of climate change, makes a case for the role the whole sector can play in tackling this ‘wicked problem’. And these are all issues being considered by Universities Wales as it pitches a plan for how universities can help deliver on the country’s ambitions.
Rishi Sunak has announced that Budget Day will be 3 March, so we’ll see what that brings…
Andrew Connolly of Exeter wrote an excellent piece for Wonkhe before Christmas which helps explain some head-scratching surpluses reported by universities in their 2019-20 accounts, despite huge income losses due to COVID-19. The culprit? Pensions, of course! Any of your stakeholders who aren’t accounting natives might find Andrew’s helpful piece useful, and if they want to understand more about the pensions minefield, they can follow it up with some (or all!) of the BUFDG Guide to University pensions.
On Tuesday, the Cabinet Office published their Green Paper for transforming public procurement. Purchasing consortia are feeding into a UK Universities Purchasing Consortia (UKUPC) UK-wide response.
The Cabinet Office’s consultation on the Green Paper closes at 11.45pm on 10 March 2021. If you have any initial feedback, please feel free to send that to Ashley at HEPA, your regional procurement consortium or feedback directly to the Cabinet Office.
A quick reminder that the Procurement Value Survey (PVS) for your institution’s 2019/20 submission closes on 31 January. You can find out more about the PVS here and if you have any queries, please contact Ashley.
Some of the world’s major financial standards bodies have come together to produce a prototype climate-related financial disclosure standard, that aims to ‘provide a “running start” for development of global standards that enable disclosure of how sustainability matters create or erode enterprise value’. The five participating organisations are CDP, the Climate Disclosure Standards Board (CDSB), the Global Reporting Initiative (GRI), the International Integrated Reporting Council (IIRC) and the Sustainability Accounting Standards Board (SASB).
TAX & PAYROLL
Well, there’s Brexit…. Andrea has published so much about Brexit changes in the past week that the best thing to do is check the latest BUFDG tax news section to catch up on what you need! Also check out our Guide to Imports from 1 January 2021 has been updated with the relevant changes for tax and procurement departments (and the changes have been listed at the start of the guide, for ease of reference. Unlike HMRC’s own publications!).
In case you missed it before Christmas the JRS (as well as loan schemes) has been extended until April.
EVENTS & LEARNING
We’ve got a jam-packed events calendar for January with a mixture of our free Time to Talk sessions, regional meetings and some paid courses.
Last chance: We’re trying to run another of our successful Brexit Customs training sessions by The Customs People on 20 January. However, we need to take a decision over whether to cancel this course due to lack of numbers this week, so if you want some Customs training, book by 5pm on Friday! The sessions cover specific HE issues, and are aimed at all staff involved in importing/exporting, not just tax/finance/procurement staff. We won’t be running this course again so this is your last opportunity. It costs £300 (plus VAT).
We’ve got a variety of Time to Talk sessions this month, on subjects such as VAT on SU catering (11 Jan), cost sharing groups and VAT groups in the light of the recent Kaplan decision (14 Jan), Making Tax Digital – mapping your VAT processes (21 Jan), EU Exist logistics and freight forwarding (26 Jan), Making Tax Digital follow up (27 Jan), and Credit Control (28 Jan).
On 25 January we are hosting a Time to Talk session about the importance of network security, and costs, with Steve Kennett, Executive Director of e-infrastructure at Jisc. This session is to help FDs/CFOs speak the language of the CIOs and security specialists and understand the ‘investment proposition’.
There are several dates for FD meetings and Deputy FD meetings planned for January, February and March, which you can book on to.
While our Finance Business Partnering Foundations courses in January and February are already fully booked, we do have spaces on our Strategic Business Partnering course – it will run in two parts via online workshops on 26 January and 9 February, with access to e-learning as well. This courses is suitable for experienced finance business partners looking for a more strategic approach, and costs £225 (plus VAT).
JOB OF THE FORTNIGHT
The job of the fortnight is the Director of Finance (Business Support) at the University of Southampton. The successful candidate will be responsible for the leadership and delivery of excellent business support to the university’s faculties and professional services directorates – managing a section of over 100 staff across eight teams. Leading the department’s business support and management accounting framework, they will also have the responsibility for delivery of the university’s ambitious strategy. The closing date for applications is 10 February.