Finance directors across the UK have been challenged by the pandemic, but universities have faced particular issues with loss of revenue from overseas students, the need to offer rebates to UK students in halls, and the lack of conference bookings. Lucy Noble, FCCA, finance director at the University of Strathclyde in Glasgow, tells Michael Jarvis how she has coped
The Accountant: What has running university finances been like during a pandemic?
Lucy Noble: It’s been really challenging. I only started the job on 3 February 2020, so I only had six weeks to get to know the team in person before we had to quickly move off campus and start home-working.
Within the first few weeks, I was working on business continuity planning and most of my initial focus had to be on change management. Initially, we had to sort out logistics like buying laptops at a time when you couldn’t source any, but we got through on adrenalin and set up our team working from home, where they felt safe.
TA: What has the effect been on the university’s finances?
LN: Like other universities, we have diverse funding sources and most of them have been hit hard, as you would expect.
Our Scottish students are funded by the Scottish Funding Council, and we took on the same number of Scottish students, so we maintained revenue there. However, because of the lack of global mobility, international students found it more difficult to travel to study with us, which resulted in a drop in income. For our commercial operations in conferences and catering, like others in the hospitality sector, we saw a considerable decrease.
The university also made an early decision at the start of lockdown to release students from their residence contracts, so they could return home if they wanted to without suffering any penalties. I certainly agreed with this supportive approach, which is very much in keeping with the university’s values – people-oriented, collaborative, innovative, bold and ambitious.
Did the university give rent rebates to students in halls of residence?
LN: We refunded students for a number of weeks when they weren’t able to return to their accommodation. It was the right thing to do, but it was another loss of income in a period of many financial challenges. Fortunately, our university has strong liquidity and we’ve done our best to maintain that.
TA: What have you been able to do to balance the books?
LN: We were able to offer some new courses that started in January 2021, which saw good uptake. They have been quite successful, and we are planning to continue them in the future.
We saved money in some ways as a result of the pandemic, such as travel and energy costs, but we had extra expenditure on things like hand sanitiser, masks and extra IT equipment.
We found that cost control was vital. Non-salary costs were controllable, so we made sure we focused on that and made savings where we could.
TA: What has the atmosphere on campus been like in such a difficult year?
LN: It’s been very hard for everybody. Of course, initially people who could work from home, like my team, wanted to be safe and close to their families, but the university also employs a lot of people in face-to-face roles working with the students, supporting their welfare, including helping international students who have to stay when there are travel restrictions.
For the students, especially those in their first year, it’s been a particular struggle. Usually, going to university would mean freedom to live by their own rules and starting a new and exciting social life, so restrictions have made this year incredibly difficult for them.
TA: How have you found the higher education sector after high-profile roles in corporates?
LN: I have been struck by the people-oriented approach at the university, which I love. For the first time in my career, I feel that my well-being genuinely matters to my employer. Many staff have been working flat out and dealing with home-schooling or having to work from the bedroom or kitchen table. The university introduced a policy of Friday rest days to help us to recover. We are really grateful in the finance team, as our workload has increased a lot, with much more external and internal reporting required.
I have worked in the private sector in construction, IT and most recently in cybersecurity. That’s another passion of mine and it’s particularly interesting in a higher education context.
TA: What role has your ACCA qualification played in your success?
LN: The ACCA qualification has opened many doors for me. It’s a hard slog to qualify, but it’s allowed me to work in practice, in industry and now in the education sector.
As a professional woman, I have found that it has given me great flexibility for a career that fits in with my family. And because it is globally recognised, it allowed me to work in Slovakia for Dell Technologies, for instance.