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The University of Reading is investigating itself over a £121m land sale

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The University of Reading is investigating itself after receiving £121 million as a loan from the National Institute for Research in Dairying trust, a charity of which it is the sole trustee.

The £121m came from the sale of land belonging to the trust, a charity intended to fund agricultural research. A Guardian article claims that the university, already alleged to be suffering from financial troubles, was "not in a position to easily repay" the loan.

University of Reading Whiteknights House

Photo: Andrew Smith / Old Whiteknights House, University of Reading / CC BY-SA 2.0

The loaned money would be added to an existing £180m debt to external creditors, pushing the university's total debt from 60% to 100% of the university's annual income.

The University has reported itself to the Charity Commission and the English higher education regulator the Office for Students (OfS),  over a potential conflict of interest regarding the sale. As well as this, the University are investigating the potential for conflict of interest as the institution is both trustee of the trust's assets and beneficiary of the loans made to it.

According to the Charity Commission, “a conflict of interest exists where there is the possibility that a trustee’s personal or wider interests could influence the trustee’s decision-making.”

While universities are charities they are not required to register with the Charities Commission but they must still comply with charity law. The Office for Students could raise charity law concerns with the Charities Commission and call for the opening of a statutory inquiry.

Speaking to the Guardian, Professor Robert Van de Noort, the university’s acting vice-chancellor, said: “Our financial statements set out the handling of the sale of land held by the National Institute for Research in Dairying trust. We are confident that appropriate governance arrangements are now in place relating to the university’s management of the trust, and the designation of the money as a loan has no wider implications for the university’s ongoing financial position.”

University of Reading

Photo: Chris Wood / Earley Gate / CC BY-SA 2.0

In local Reading newspaper getreading, Professor Van de Noort also refuted claims that the university was facing financial troubles, saying: "We do not recognise this as an accurate representation of the university’s finances.

"The university is in a sound position following changes to the UK higher education sector over the past decade, and has robust plans in place to deal with current and future challenges.

"The university has expanded student recruitment by more than 30 per cent over the past five years.

"We have continued to grow our global presence, with more students coming to our UK campuses from overseas, and experienced ongoing growth with international partners.

"Our world-class research profile has continued to grow, with a record level of research income awarded to Reading in 2017-18. We are ranked among the top 200 universities in the world.

"We remain a respected institution with excellent teaching and research and the university is in a strong position to meet the future with confidence."

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