Analysis: Colleges come to terms with transparency on trustee pay

Oxford, Cambridge and Durham colleges may have to disclose the salaries of some senior staff under the charity Sorp, leaving them open to poaching from other institutions. Sam Burne James reports

Set in stone: Oxford dons on the Examination Schools building
Set in stone: Oxford dons on the Examination Schools building

Universities from around the world that want to poach high-calibre academic staff from the colleges of Oxford, Cambridge and Durham universities might soon find that process easier, courtesy of the Charity Commission.

From next year some of these colleges might have to publish the names and salaries of individual dons in their annual accounts because of new requirements in the recently revised Statements of Recommended Practice for charity accounting.

Until the 2006 Charities Act, Oxbridge colleges held exempt charity status, as did the two of Durham's 16 colleges that are legally independent from the university. This exempt status was withdrawn by the act, so the colleges have had to register with the commission, which means in theory they must comply with charity accounting rules.

However, all but two of the Cambridge colleges have successfully argued that they should be able to continue with the same Sorp for higher education providers as they had before charitable registration. The other two Cambridge colleges, plus their counterparts at Oxford and Durham, have been forced by the charity Sorp to provide some information about payment of their trustees, who are mostly paid academic staff.

That has not amounted to much information so far. Most of those colleges disclose only the numbers of trustees they have in particular £5,000 salary brackets. A spokesman for the University of Oxford says its colleges "have, with the support of their various auditors, committed to meeting the spirit of the Sorp by disclosing actual remuneration of trustees in an anonymised format, while protecting the privacy of individual employed trustees.

"Consideration was given, in the decision to take this approach, to the competitive nature of both national and international academic employment markets."

This approach got informal approval from the commission, according to Nick Brooks, a partner at the accountancy firm Kingston Smith, which audits the accounts of Exeter College, Oxford. "The commission never really sanctioned it officially," he says. "It was more a comfortable arrangement that it wasn't going to challenge – a tacit exemption."

But the issue has resurfaced with development of the new Sorps for financial years from 2015, and the new regime is predicted by some experts to be less flexible. "In applying the new Sorp, we might need to go back and name the trustees," says Brooks. "We're trying to get confirmation on that from the commission at the minute."

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