A governor of Aberdeen University was paid tens of thousands of pounds in expenses to commute to meetings from the other side of the world.
It has emerged that Kathryn McPhail, who is chief executive of a Singapore-based organisation that advises businesses on tackling climate change, would regularly jet-in on business class flights for gatherings of the university court.
A Press and Journal investigation has found that £57,050 was spent on flights, and £4,316 on taxis, so that she could attend about 31 meetings in the last eight years.
Overall, it cost the university an average of about £2,000 for each meeting and event she attended in person in the period, according to her expense claims.
Mrs McPhail, an experienced energy industry executive, stepped down from her university court role following the completion of her third term at the end of July.
Data released to the P&J shows that air fares purchased for three visits in 2019 were worth £10,750, while about £15,900 was spent on five sets of flights in 2018, and more than £12,600 went on four round trips in 2017.
Her £13,152 overall expense claims in 2018/19, and £21,363 in 2017/18, were not only higher than any other university governor in Scotland in those years, they more than the total claimed by each of the other boards, except St Andrews.
The arrangement has meant that Aberdeen University’s court has had the highest total of all the bodies that oversee the nation’s universities in three of the last four years.
Last night, a spokesman for the university said all expenses paid were assessed and met its guidelines.
He stressed court members give up their time voluntarily, without payment, and that they have often been successful business figures who have provided “valuable insights and perspectives”.
However, Mary Senior, Scotland official at the University and College Union, questioned the level of spending.
“University staff across Scotland are being forced out on strike later this month because their pay has been held down, they are not being given proper contracts and their pension costs are set to rise again,” she said.
“It is quite galling to see universities prepared to shell out thousands of pounds on flights and taxis to jet people in from across the globe for meetings.
“This looks like another embarrassing example of the incredible detachment between those at the top of our universities and everybody else.”
Members of the UCU at Aberdeen University and institutions across the UK are due to go on strike over pensions, pay and working disputes later this month.
In September, a report by the Auditor General for Scotland highlighted that Aberdeen University was the only one of the nation’s four ancient universities to post a deficit in 2017-18, as it had done in each of the preceding three years, although it was expecting a “small surplus” for 2018-19.
The Scottish Funding Council is also currently conducting an inquiry into a £282,000 payment to former principal Sir Ian Diamond when he left Aberdeen University last year.
Last night, an Aberdeen University spokesman said: “Court members give up their time voluntarily and without payment to sit on our governing body, its sub-committees, and occasional ad-hoc committees established for a particular purpose, which by their nature require face-to-face interaction.
“This means that court members are required to meet frequently throughout the year to provide the university with the benefit of their experience.
“As a leading international university with a global outlook our court membership has included successful figures from business and other sectors based outwith Aberdeen who have provided valuable insights and perspectives.
“Travel and expenses incurred in attending meetings are paid to court members in line with university guidelines.
“While participation through conference calls is undertaken, many of the decisions and discussions being taken require representatives to attend in person and members are encouraged to do so.”
Mrs McPhail, who did not respond to the P&J’s attempts to make contact, has worked all over the world, including at oil and gas and mining firms, as well as at the World Bank, the UN and the Natural Resources Governance Institute in New York.
She is currently head of a Singapore-based EnergyCC, an organisation that brings together industries seeking to develop ways to help tackle climate change, and she is also a member of Singapore Institute of Directors.
She was an independent member of Aberdeen University’s court from 2010 until this summer, when she stepped down at the end of her third term, and also served on its remuneration and nominations committees.
North-east Labour MSP Lewis Macdonald said: “Universities need to be able to draw on a wide range of knowledge and expertise if they are to succeed in a highly competitive global environment.
“At the same time, they must be able to show value for money in their use of public funds, especially when many who work in universities feel their pay has fallen behind after years of austerity.”
What is a court member?
Court members oversee the management of the finances, property and other resources of Aberdeen University.
They approve the institutional mission and strategic vision and have a number of corporate and legal responsibilities.
The majority of court members are independent, and they are expected to commit to 10 days per year, including attendance at four meetings of the court.
They are also expected to serve on at least one sub-committee of the court, such as the audit committee.
Governors do not get paid, but the university states that “reasonable expenses will be reimbursed”.
The position is usually held for a period of three years, and may be extended by mutual agreement.
UHI chairman has had highest pay of any university chief in Scotland
The University of the Highlands and Islands (UHI) has paid more money to its chairman than any other Scottish higher education institution in recent years.
Garry Coutts became chairman of the UHI court in summer 2014, having previously served as rector.
On top of expenses, he was paid £11,340 in 2014/15 before it increased for three years in a row to £34,121 in 2017/18, and then his remuneration fell to £28,485 in 2018/19.
The only other Scottish universities to remunerate their chairperson or senior governor in that period was Glasgow, which paid £9,090 in 2017/18 and £15,969 in 2018/19, as well as Aberdeen University, which paid £6,666 for four months of 2018-19.
However, several other university chairmen and women are expected to be paid for their work in the future, following the Higher Education Governance (Scotland) Act 2016, which requires the offer of remuneration.
Aberdeen University’s court has agreed to offer its senior governor £400 per day with an expected time commitment of 50 days per year, or around £20,000 a year, while Dundee University is due to start paying £327 per day for 50 days, or about £16,350 per year.
Robert Gordon University is proposing to pay £15,000 per year to its next chairman, due to take up post in January.
In 2017/18, the UHI offered its chairman, the chairman of its Further Education Regional Board and the vice-chairman of its court a fixed remuneration rate of £37.47 per hour, or a daily rate of £281.
A UHI spokeswoman said that the university recognised in 2014, when it took on responsibility for further education across the Highlands and Islands, that “the time commitment required of our chair as a result would be quite different to that of other Scottish universities”.
She added that the offer of payment “resulted in a more diverse pool for recruitment which is in line with the university’s equality and diversity policy”, and that “in some years the chair was required to do more days than others”.