UK CHARITY LAW AND UNIVERSITIES
The Charity Commission would do well not to pick a fight
UK universities are charities and a recent change in charity law in England and Wales means that in order to qualify as a charity an organisation must demonstrate the public benefit it delivers, rather than operate under a presumption of that benefit.
The Charity Commission has produced guidance which says that organisations will pass the public benefit test if the opportunity for people to benefit is not restricted by an ability to pay and if the organisation does not exclude people in poverty. Following the changes to Higher Education fee arrangements and the increase in the cap of up to £9,000 where additional widening participation activities and spend are offered ,there is now a concern that if the Charity Commission Guidance is followed there could be a problem. The argument goes that by charging a fee above £6,000 universities risk preventing poorer students attending and might therefore risk losing this vital charitable status. Given how cash strapped universities are, this could be life threatening for some. Universities are not like schools, for any number of reasons. One reason, though, will be vital in universities’ coming battle to retain their charitable status: you don’t need to go to university to benefit from university education. Meaning that every time a doctor heals a sick person, an architect designs a building that does not fall down or an artist makes something beautiful, society benefits. Universities obviously benefit the individual concerned which is why students are now paying for part of the actual costs of their HE education . But it can be argued that they also benefit the wider society making society a better place, which is why the State pays for part of the actual costs of a students education. ( the new tuition fees will not cover the full costs of student education).So if we all benefit, ie there is a public benefit attached, maybe they should be allowed to keep their charitable status. One issue that might assist universities in keeping their charity status is that the Charity Commission is under some pressure and is not flavour of the month, in Tory ranks at least. It has been leaked that Ministers have been looking closely at Dame Suzi Leathers contract. Many believe that the Charity Commission has made a pigs ear of handling the public benefit issue with the independent sector. Opaque guidance and confused signals has left the sector bemused and confused not knowing what is expected of them, combined with a belief that the Commission is making it up as it goes along . The Commission has given the impression that it thinks that offering bursaries ticks all the boxes as far as schools keeping their charitable status is concerned and appears not to give as much weight to other forms of benefit.
Encouraging private schools to cherry pick the best state school pupils, through bursary schemes, will harm self-evidently those state schools, and serves to deliver benefit to the few rather than the many, which has hardly won the Commission many admirers. It would do well to concentrate on getting its act together, rather than start picking a fight with universities.