Is This Really What Universities Should Be Spending Millions On?


A BBC investigation has uncovered figures showing that universities across England have spent some £20million on art to furnish their buildings or museums over the past five years.

A Freedom of Information request by the BBC collated the information for 2010-2015 with their research showing that one work of art, from the University of Oxford, cost a whopping £7.9m.

Workers’ union Unison has criticised the universities saying they were choosing ‘style over substance’ with a spokeswoman saying:

Unison is appalled that universities can think about investing £20m in works of art when a significant number of institutions still pay their employees significantly less than the living wage. The huge amount going on works of art suggests that during these austere times, universities are choosing style over substance.

The biggest single spend came from the University of Oxford which purchased the Portrait of Mademoiselle Claus by the French impressionist Edouard Manet, for £7.9m, of which £5.9m was from the Heritage Lottery Fund and £850,000 from the Art Fund. The 1868 painting was purchased for the university’s Ashmolean Museum, which is open to the public free of charge.

A number of the universities have defended their position, saying the works of art often went on public display and were used for teaching and research.

University of Cambridge

A spokeswoman for the University of Oxford said: 

The Ashmolean’s mission is to be the world’s greatest university museum of art and archaeology Newly acquired objects are made available to the widest possible audience for enjoyment and study.

During the period 2010-2015, the University of Cambridge – home to eight museums –  spent £3.9m on Extreme Unction by the 17th Century Frenchman Nicolas Poussin. The university has stated that all of the works they have purchased have been bought with funds specifically for the purpose of adding to the museum collections, with Extreme Unction going on a UK-wide tour.

Oxford Brookes University

Other big spenders including Durham University (£2.6 million) and Oxford Brookes University (£552,000) were equally defensive of their outgoings with a Durham spokesperson describing the institution as ‘a custodian of many fine treasures’ while Oxford Brookes highlighted that it began life as a School of Art 150 years ago and was ‘proud of these roots’.