Has anyone ever contemplated a PhD thesis on the expenses claims of senior managers in academia? I ask not only because the claims in question are fascinating in themselves, particularly at a time when, post-Grenfell, inequality in Britain is much in our minds. But perhaps they have a wider relevance: these dusty documents, signed off and at once forgotten, tell us something about how universities see themselves and their place in the world, and maybe even a little about society in general.
A confession: I don't know what universities are for. I thought I did once. I don't any more. But studying the expenses claims of the senior management group at Glasgow University, which I have been doing ever since its principal received a knighthood in the Queen's birthday honours last weekend, has thrown up a few clues that I'd like to share with you.
I can only do this by example and illustration, which means naming names. For the purposes of my inquiry, I excluded Sir Anton Muscatelli, whose patronage of Cafe Nero in London City Airport is already well known to regular readers of this magazine, and instead explored relatively virgin territory – the business expenses of the principal's immediate deputies.
The first impression one gets of these people is how extensively and how often they travel the world as ambassadors for Glasgow University. It seems to be a truly global institution these days. There is even a vice-principal for 'Internationalisation' – a word whose incomparable ugliness says little for the modern university's regard for literacy. The holder of the post is James Conroy, the professor of religious and philosophical education.
It is easy to feel overwhelmed by the hotel bills and air fares of Professor Conroy and his colleagues, so I decided to concentrate on the trifles – the sundry items in the great ledger – which are often more revealing of the eternal human comedy.
In this way I discovered that in January last year Professor Conroy spent £3.01 on a coffee in Krakow, an expense that he was able to recover on his return to Glasgow; that in December 2015 he claimed £5 for passport photos; and that while on university business in Mexico in November 2015, the Sheraton Hotel, where he was staying, levied a charge of 2p for some unspecified service. Professor Conroy quite properly arranged for his employer to refund the 2p.
In matters of personal health and well-being, it is hard to fault the vice-principal (Internationalisation). In December 2014, he claimed £16.68 for flight socks and aspirins for a trip to China. Three months later, he claimed £30.49 for repellent spray, wipes and more flight socks (pity they're not re-usable) for a trip to India. In November 2015, in anticipation of a trip to Brazil, he claimed £9.95 for hand wash gel and insect repellent. He was then able to proceed in relative safety to a conference of the Association for Moral Education.
From Professor Conroy's claims, I have learned that the modern university takes seriously its obligations as a host. In January last year, the vice-principal (Internationalisation) treated a delegation from the Latvian government to dinner at one of Edinburgh's smarter restaurants, the romantic Witchery by the Castle. The bill for eight – £546.71 (an average of £68.33 per head) – seems reasonable enough for an institution of Glasgow University's apparently boundless resources.
Last year the professor had an exceptionally busy spring with business trips to Paris, Barcelona, Shanghai, Beijing and Washington DC. During his sojourn in the Far East, he kindly gave the deputy director of the Confucius Institute a gift of duty-free Talisker at a cost of £41.99, which his employer refunded. The following month, April 2016, while in Washington for a conference of the American Educational Research Association, he donated in the same generous spirit a second bottle of whisky to a 'contact' at the distinguished Smithsonian Institution (which exists for 'the increase and diffusion of knowledge'). On this occasion, it was Tomintoul at £53.99.
Working lunches and dinners play an important part in the life of the modern university: that too I have learned. The two restaurants most favoured by Glasgow University's senior managers are known as the Ubiquitous Chip and the Bothy, both in the west end.
It was, however, in the over-rated Hotel du Vin that Dame Anna Dominiczak, the regius professor of medicine, hosted a 'business dinner' for six (of whom two were 'external persons') on 14 September 2014 at a cost to the university of £633.79 (an average of £105.63 per head). I hope it may still be possible to retrieve the bill for this memorable evening and make it available as a reference source to anyone embarking on a Masters in business entertaining in contemporary Britain. Indeed I would be happy to republish it here, unexpurgated, as a contribution to public understanding of the modern university.
But it would be wrong to give the impression that every guest of Glasgow University is so royally entertained. In February last year, the vice-principal for 'Innovation and Knowledge Exchange', Professor Jonathan Cooper, bought lunch for one Sandy Munro, a representative of a 'drug delivery company', Vectura. Mr Munro could not have had much of an appetite, for the bill came to £3.90, which the professor claimed back in the usual way.
I found that the minor expenses of the vice-principal for 'Innovation and Knowledge Exchange' provided a particular source of harmless amusement. In November 2015, Professor Cooper 'needed replacements' for toiletries lost during a visit to Singapore and when he got back to the office tendered a claim for £2.81 for the replacement toiletries. In March last year, he billed the university £14.73 for a shaving razor purchased, so far as I could tell, on his way back from Taipei. For a new passport and passport photos 'required for business purposes', he claimed £137. The only expense of Professor Cooper to which any reasonable person might take exception was the £1,137.90 it cost the university to change his ticket for a flight to Delhi.
Next, step forward Professor Neal Juster, senior vice-principal, who nobly deputised for Sir Anton Muscatelli (as he then wasn't) at the Edinburgh Tattoo in August 2014, claiming his train fare of £13.20. In October that year he claimed for 'refreshments at the table' costing £108.90 at a junket in the name of the 'Glasgow Business Awards'. The following month the senior vice-principal bought drinks for 10 people at the Times Higher Education awards dinner in London at an average cost per head of £52.85, and the university picked up the tab for £528.50.
From these claims, along with many others, I have learned that the modern university, far from being a temple of Olympian detachment, is essentially part of Britain's corporate culture, a world of clients and contacts, 'refreshments at the table', complimentary bottles of malt whisky, early morning flights to God-forsaken corners of the globe, and endless awards ceremonies. Why would anyone want to do it? Why should anyone have to remember to charge 30p for a road toll in Jakarta, as Professor Frank Coton, vice-principal for 'Academic and Educational Innovation', did last year? And why should the senior vice-principal of so venerable an institution have to attend the Edinburgh Tattoo under any circumstances?
I still don't know what universities are for, although I have a strong sense that the 'increase and diffusion of knowledge' has become a bit of a sideline. But I know a little more than I did about the challenging lives of those who run them. Often what jumps out of their yellowing, screwed-up receipts is the futility of life at the top. Having to represent your university at a reception to celebrate the National Day of Taiwan doesn't sound like a lot of fun, and I for one don't grudge Professor Neal Juster his £1.90 for the subway ticket home at the end of it.