But universities are unusual among public bodies in not only possessing considerable autonomy from central government but in there also being considerable internal autonomy, as departments and individual academics guard their independence.
Universities are self-governing, although they get substantial public funding and so are in the firing line for government spending cuts.
This means that though they must save money they can decide for themselves how this will be done unlike, say, a local authority that may have specific efficiency saving targets to meet.
They can also raise their own funds, which means that there may well be belt-tightening for domestic travel, but universities will still want to send delegations abroad to, for example, recruit overseas students who pay high fees or to attract research funding from foreign sources.
Most universities channel at least part of their travel and accommodation spends through purchasing consortia that offer framework agreements from which they can buy services as required.
But although a significant amount of spending is organised through these, an even larger, though unknown, amount is not.
Steve Summers, chief operating officer of Key Travel, takes up the story. His company has for some years been the sole travel provider to the London Universities Purchasing Consortium and is also on the framework of the giant Southern Universities Purchasing Consortium, two of the big university purchasing consortia.
“We are involved with about 70 universities and the biggest shift going on is that of procurement officers trying increasingly to manage the spend,” he says.
Summers explains that a professor may, for example, have his or her own budget arising from personal research and sees it as justified to spend that on their work as they see fit.
He says: “It is not unusual to find people planning trips for themselves outside a central budget, so they are not buying from an approved supplier but looking on Expedia or something.
“That is a frustrating thing for the travel agent but also for procurement staff who cannot get reliable management information.”
He says it is by no means unusual to talk to a university that wishes to organise its travel spend and, “be told that £1m goes through a TMC but that they know another £2m is spent on travel elsewhere because it shows up in expense claims somewhere, but it is not managed.”
Financial stringencies mean the trend is towards “getting all the travel spend on contract so that procurement officers can then try to manage it down and once they do get all that managed they can do better deals through partnering with TMCs”, says Summers.
He predicts that the downturn will see spend on travel fall in proportion to reductions in staff numbers but that some overseas travel will continue, or even grow, because universities make money from it.
“Many universities depend foreign investment and so will want use us to arrange a tour by a staff member to, say, China where they can meet potential overseas students,” he says.
“Research is important to universities and so academics want to attend international meetings where they can discuss their expertise. International research and recruiting overseas students are things they need to keep up to attract inward investment.”
Vera Philippou, director of Delta Travel, is on a framework for the neighbouring universities of Liverpool, Liverpool John Moores, Liverpool Hope and Chester and also does some work for the universities of Manchester, Central Lancashire and Salford.
“It’s a framework for both travel and accommodation but since they often make accommodation arrangements directly with the people they will be visiting that is only a small proportion compared with travel,” she says.
“I think they like the personalised service, we are part of the Advantage Focus Partnership which gives us access to discounts with 60-70 airlines.”
She says one advantage of dealing with universities is that, like other public bodies, they will not go bust.
“You know you will get paid and they will not go out of business or disappear even if an invoice gets lost I know it will be paid,” she says.
To see which travel management companies the companies use, their travel spend and other detailed information, visit this article on the university purchasing consortia (you need to be a registered user to read it).To receive our free weekly round-up of all news stories from our site, click here
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