UCD have, quite literally, begun the new college year with a flying start. On Monday, 16 September, the Irish Times reported the findings of a Freedom of Information request as to the premium fares spent by universities across the country. It has come to light that UCD spent just shy of €1 million on business and premium seating for academics last year. Some fares cost an astounding €6,000 each way. This puts UCD in proud first place for this type of spending amongst its rivals Trinity (€259,084) and UCC (€96,978). This expenditure is presumably funded using the plethora of student fees we cough up each year, making this a very relevant story for every college student in Ireland.
The Irish Times’ article on the issue centred on a conversation with an unnamed UCD spokesperson. The main line of defence was, at best, pretty weak. The first reasoning for this absurd figure was that these premium flights were scrutinised heavily prior to being approved, and required ‘written approval’. Most of these flights were supposedly to recruit international students for UCD, or to train academics abroad. The second rationale was that, when compared to UCD’s overall scale, this price-tag represented ‘excellent financial value’. I’m not so sure that this sort of comparison is financially savvy; let’s examine some prices and compare them.
At the time of writing, a same-day Ryanair flight to Paris would set you back €135.99. The most expensive direct flight I could find was €493 with Air France. This makes me wonder the aptitude of the person scrutinising and approving a €2,338 flight to Paris. Similarly, a same-day flight to Kuwait with one stop was €2,081 at its most expensive. UCD’s budget for one? €6,419.
Bear in mind that the people organising these trips have weeks, if not months, of advance planning to book flights, which should reduce the prices I found even further. Sourcing flights as expensive as UCD have managed to do is an achievement in itself, albeit one that is not worth bragging about. Assuming the same savings can be made across all of UCD’s premium flights, the existing figure of over €960,000 could be reduced to below €300,000 without too much effort.
Aside from these questionable fares, the destinations of some of these flights may raise some eyebrows. Trinidad and Tobago and Ulaanbaatar (the capital of Mongolia) are, the last time I checked, not the foremost centres of education. Yet, UCD dished out €5,268 for these flights. If the point of the exercise is to recruit top-talent, perhaps flying to countries known for their educational excellence would be easier to defend, and would reap more rewards for the university.
Is this spending ever justifiable? Do academics really need to fly business class? Why can’t they simply sit in economy, like the overwhelming majority of people do? And, if attracting international students to UCD (who pay fees up to €30,000 per year) is the exercise in question, surely minimising travel expenses of these travel excursions would increase profit margins for the college? Michael O’Leary, who I am sure is appalled at his alma mater’s (Trinity) expenses on flights, albeit rubbing his hands in the process, could certainly teach universities a thing or two on minimising costs.
Alex Lohier – Deputy Editor