Union bosses today called for a university to open its books on its international investments, as it fights up to 75 job cuts at home.
The University and College Union (UCU) has produced a briefing paper, Empire Built on Sand, in which it scrutinises the way the University of Central Lancashire has created a series of holding and subsidiary companies to finance overseas campuses.
It has also criticised the university for building campuses in the UN buffer zone in Cyprus and in Thailand and Sri Lanka where there are human rights issues.
The report, which has been sent to the university’s board of governors, looks at investments in Cyprus, Sri Lanka, Thailand and China, which the authors claim appear to “have lost considerable sums of money.”
The union said it was concerned millions of pounds had been “written off” the balance sheet of UCLan’s main holding company, Centralan Holdings, and claimed that because of the complexity of the way the companies had been set up it was hard to determine how much the overseas projects cost and who or how they were funded.
Report author Jonathan White said: “UCLan is not alone in doing this but is a good example because they are very aggressively pursuing overseas income. The Government is promoting this and what is happening is that universities are being allowed to create these unaccountable companies and doing things abroad they wouldn’t be able to do at home.
“The public has a right to know what is being done with the assets and students have a right to know what is happening to their tuition fees.”
Martyn Moss, regional official for UCU, added: “Are local jobs and wages being put at risk to fund these risky international investments?”
He called for transparency urging UCLan bosses to sit down with the union and go through the books.
Mr Moss added: “At the moment, it is impossible to work out what money is going where and why. We want the figures detailed in a clear and transparent way. If there is nothing to hide then there shouldn’t be an issue here.”
UCLan said public money was not used on any of its ventures overseas. The University Board approved an ambitious overseas development plan in 2007 as part of its aim to become a leading global player - giving UK students with a chance to study abroad.
It also addressed changes to the way higher education in the UK is funded which now means institutions have to find new ways of raising money.
A UCLan spokesman said: “In considering this plan (for international investment), the board was fully aware of the risks and was satisfied any monies invested would not put the university at risk. It was also satisfied that any money invested would not be from the UK public source.”
And UCLan said the projects were not expected to make a profit in the short term.
UCLan has extensive links in China and its first private campus, in Cyprus, opened in 2012 thanks to private finance through a partnership with local developers. It has more than 300 students and the facilities in Pyla, close to the UN Green Line separating Turkish occupied Northern Cyprus, are also used by Preston-based students. Around 1,000 students have visited so far.
A spokesman added: “UCLan Cyprus is a key pillar of a long-term international business strategy,” adding that despite the island’s economic problems UCLan “remains excited about the potential of the campus.”
However, a £3m loss was reported after plans for a private campus in Thailand ran into trouble when a joint venture was scrapped. Plans to revive the project are underway.
Talks are still going on to create a UCLan campus in Sri Lanka. A spokesman said: “At this point, neither UCLan Overseas Ltd nor UCLan Lanka have issued contracts to any building companies and has therefore not yet begun building a campus. The business plan for the campus is under development, based on a campus plan agreed with partners in Sri Lanka.”