Charity Commission rules and universities’ charitable status

Possible threat to universities’ charitable status

Interesting opinion piece from Pinsent Masons on how Charity Commission rules could threaten universities’ charitable status.

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.

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 make society a better place. And if we all benefit, they should be allowed to keep their charitable status.

Someone should tell the Charity Commission this. It claims that a change in the law aimed at fee paying schools should apply to universities that increase their fees.

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 fee arrangements and the increase in the cap of up to £9,000 where additional widening participation activities and spend are offered there is a concern that if the Charity Commission Guidance is followed there could be a problem. By charging a fee above £6,000 it is suggested in the article that universities risk preventing poorer students attending and might therefore could lose vital charitable status.

It’s not clear how an increase in the cap would make such a difference to the current position. Especially given that universities wishing to charge more will have to make significant new widening participation commitments and have a new access agreement with the Office for Fair Access. Nevertheless, concern remains.

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