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25th November 2020

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BUFDG Digest, Wednesday 25th November Matt Sisson


CONFERENCE 2021 - Somewhere, Anywhere

The 2021 BUFDG Conference takes place completely online over the week 15-19 March. The theme for the event is Somewhere, Anywhere, which captures some of the biggest questions that universities are, and will be facing, as the new ‘normal’ emerges.

Somewhere, Anywhere is about the digital nature of the event - this will be our first conference where we can’t put “…at the University of...” in the title. It’s also reflected in universities’ own experiences through, and beyond, the pandemic. On one hand, the pandemic has strengthened the civic role of universities and their sense of place - as anchors in their local communities, and in working more closely with Local Authorities, Businesses, Colleges, and each other. On the other hand, in the transition to blended learning and the adoption of more advanced communications, has the ‘place’ become less and less important? And what do these trends mean for the future of university finance?

Next Tuesday (1st December), we’ll be opening institution bookings for the event. For the 2021 conference we’ll be broadening the attendees from just Finance Directors, to include their reports including Deputies, and ‘Heads of’ Finance, Tax, Procurement, Payroll, Financial Reporting, and others. To facilitate this, the cost of the conference will be on an institutional, rather than individual basis. All will be explained next week, when we’ll be sharing more details with you of what will be an informative, challenging, and enlightening five days in March.


GENERAL

The Office for Students has issued a flurry of publications since our last Digest, including a consultation “on its approach to regulating quality and standards in higher education” the day after Universities UK announced that “Universities in England are developing a charter to help ensure they take a consistent and transparent approach to identifying and improving potentially low value or low quality courses.” It will be interesting to see whether any institutions decide to “do a Ratner” or wait for a definition of “low value” to emerge and then discreetly revise their course portfolio.

While the IFS’ 2020 edition of its annual report on education spending in England continues to attract comment, their Director Paul Johnson has written another article about the impact of low interest rates on the economy. “Record low interest rates never went away. The QE programme was not unwound, it was expanded. At the same time, the interest payable on government debt continued to fall.” In explaining the impact of low interest rates on traditional final-salary pensions he cites USS as an example. Martin Wolf in the FT speculates about the return of inflation and that the authors of The Great Demographic Reversal “may be right that, in their brave new world, the desire to save will tend to fall faster than that to invest, the savings glut will turn into a shortage, and real interest rates will soar.” Would that be problem solved, or just cause a different problem?

BUFDG is running a Christmas competition to gather ideas from members to improve the BUFDG and HEPA websites. Quite simply, the best/most interesting idea wins a prize, so get your ideas down on a virtual postcard and send to Amanda by Friday 4 December (more details here).


ADMISSIONS

As UCAS had already announced “[T]wo radical new options for reform are set to be unveiled by UCAS in the coming weeks” it came as no surprise when The Westminster Education Secretary announced on 13th November that he intended to consider post-qualification university admissions, and to consult ‘on proposals to “remove the unfairness” that some groups currently face due to inaccurate predicated (sic) grades.’ UniversitiesUK published its Fair Admissions Review recommendations on the same day as the ministerial announcement.

Scotland’s universities published A guarantee of fairness when applying to university in Scotland in 2019 with the input of 18 of Scotland’s universities and Universities Scotland’s own admissions working group.


PENSIONS

Hard on the heels of UUK’s response to USS on the Technical provisions consultation, HEPI’s Nick Hillman reveals what he does to lift the post-Christmas slump in his article, Why the pandemic is likely to produce a shift in academics’ pension arrangements. This is a short piece of pointed observations, including, “there are fewer active members whose employee and employer contributions are together expected to cover their own benefits and to fill in any deficit than there are deferred members and pensioners. Only 45% of USS members actively contribute to the USS for there are 205,000 active members, 180,000 deferred members and 75,000 retired members.” One of many worrying aspects for employers, employees and scheme administrators is the growing opt-out rate, which will compound an imbalance between active and inactive members.

Pensions advisers are proof that it’s an ill wind that blows no one any good as universities grapple with a range of pensions issues. Those in an LGPS scheme continue to unpack The Ministry for Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG)’s response to proposals on review of employer contributions and flexibility on exit payments; last week’s High Court GMP equalisation ruling that “Schemes that had contracting-out benefits will need to revisit their past transfers since the 1990s”; and the Department for Education’s proposal to allow independent schools to retain Teachers’ Pension Scheme membership for existing staff, while at the same time offering private plans for new staff. This is intriguing some other TPS employers as advisers warn that scheme contributions have not stopped rising. Keep an eye on the guest blogs page on the BUFDG website for more comment from those in the know.


TAX

Andrea and Julia are a two-woman information-digester machine that produces an amazing newsletter, TaxHE, every fortnight as well as coping with daily updates from HMRC, applying them to the HE environment so you don’t have to and making it easier for BUFDG members to keep up and prepare for 1 January.  Alongside these updates, they organise the tax and PEG groups, the International Forums, Time to Talk sessions, training, and respond to consultations. As you read this Digest, they will be following the Spending Review announcement to pick out anything relevant to BUFDG members.

Since the publication of the latest TaxHE on 19th November, the pair have posted numerous news articles and posted to the Discussion Board. This is a taste of what you can find on the news page:

HMRC has issued guidance on how to Claim VAT refunds from EU countries from 1 January 2021.  In a nutshell, businesses have until 31 March 2021 to make a claim for costs that relate to 31 December 2020 and prior using the EU VAT refund system. After this date, businesses have to check the position for each country, which can be found on the EU Commission website here.

***Update as at 20/11/20 for business established in Northern Ireland***

The position for businesses established in Northern Ireland is different.  This Policy Paper How to claim a refund of VAT paid in an EU member state sets out that Northern Ireland business can still use the EU VAT refund system for VAT incurred on goods, but for services will need to use the 13th Directive refund process.

BUFDG members are invited to join PwC's Gemma Buxton and James Marchbank on 3rd December at 10am for an update on the new social security regime that will apply to European moves post 31 December 2020, and what this means in practice.  We will also be revisiting the practical steps universities can take before 31 December 2020 and sharing with you the latest insights on this from the EU Commission and our social security network across Europe.  Furthermore, we will be reflecting on the impact Covid 19 has had from a social security perspective, and what this means for universities, sharing with you our practical insights especially where social security is payable in a jurisdiction where a university has no entity. Book here to secure your place.


PROCUREMENT

Ashley has been helping Matt to put the annual conference arrangements together but has still found time to arrange some Time to Talk sessions for procurement colleagues on tools to make life easier. Book for a session by Mark Williamson of Clyde & Co on the Schrems II case and its impact on universities. Mark will offer some practical steps the higher education sector needs to take to take account of the case. Book here for the 14th December session.

You can also join Daniel O’Connor Warpit for a time to talk looking at how you can find, give away, or loan office furniture, equipment and other resources within your institution.  Read how the University of St. Andrews and University College London have used Warpit to deliver financial savings and sustainability benefits.

It’s also coming up to PVS season and you are invited to an explanatory webinar on 3rd December. As our friends at LUPC have tweeted, “the Procurement Value Survey is an excellent way to record your efficiencies and benchmark your results with other similar organisations. This webinar is vital to ensure you get the best from the system.” 

The Cabinet Office has this week published Procurement Policy Note 08/20 detailing the introduction of the Find A Tender service; the PPN itself is accompanied by a series of frequently asked questions and a flowchart.


RESEARCH FUNDING

The National Centre for Universities and Business has played a crucial role in considering the opportunities and challenges set out in the UK Government’s R&D Roadmap, and earlier this year at the request of UK Research and Innovation (UKRI), formed a R&D Taskforce which produced an excellent report: Research to Recovery. Sam Laidlaw’s foreword included “Partnerships between universities and businesses have driven an unprecedented pace of progress in the development of a vaccine for Covid-19. Such a vaccine is only possible because of a translation of knowledge and cutting-edge ideas into products and solutions to real world challenges”. Now Oxford and Astra Zeneca have developed an effective COVID19 vaccine, perhaps we can look forward to better media coverage for universities and more public support for all they do.

The timing of publication of the NCUB’s report just before the autumn spending review may have been coincidental, but perhaps less of a coincidence is a short report by The Association of Medical Research Charities which was included in a debate pack for Tuesday’s Westminster Hall debate on recognising and preserving the value of charity-funded medical research in the 2020 Spending Review. With charities having seen a huge fall in income and an increased call on their services this year, there is a real danger that charities will be unable to sustain their research investment which amounted to £1.9 billion in 2019.


FINALLY...

Our job of the fortnight is for a Head of Fees and Funding at London Metropolitan University. The successful applicant "will be accountable for assessing and authorising payments made to students under the various University bursary and scholarship schemes as well as being accountable for the management of the US Financial Aid scheme", among other responsibilities. The deadline for applications is 3 December.

As always, take a look at the BUFDG jobs page for other opportunities.



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