The University of Plymouth has commissioned seven custom-made chairs for £95,000 from designer John Makepeace – more than £13,500 per chair. The designer chairs are intended for use in graduation ceremonies and other public university events.
In addition, the Plymouth Herald reported that the university plans to spend another £9,000 on the commission of a film crew to shoot a documentary chronicling the construction of the expensive chairs “for promotional purposes”.
The University and College Union (UCU) called the amount “incredible”; they added that the decision to commission the graduation chairs showed how “out of touch” the university’s managers were.
UCU regional officer Nick Varney said: “It is even more incredible when you consider that financial problems have been given as a reason for job cuts.
“Staff do not want to see their hard work undermined by money being wasted on unnecessary lavish items – money that should be spent on employing staff and improving the student experience.”
The purchase has also been criticised in the media by staff members and the students’ platform Unileaks UK. The students’ union at Plymouth told The Student they were not allowed to comment on the issue.
The University of Plymouth has defended the purchase of the chairs as part of a collection of contemporary design works and argued the annual graduation ceremony would raise tourist income every year.
According to a statement issued by the university’s press office, the purchase of the chairs was initiated by Vice -Chancellor Professor Wendy Purcell in March 2013. Out of entries of several designers, John Makepeace’s work was selected by a panel headed by the Vice-Chancellor herself.
The statement goes on to say: “Approval of the project was not sought from the University Executive nor the University Board”. According to the press office, Vice Chancellor Purcell later decided that she did not want to be involved in the project anymore, but “did not advise cancellation of the project.”
Professor Purcell was suspended in July 2014 and is currently on leave, with the university currently being run by deputy Vice Chancellor David Coslett.
The reasons for Professor Purcell’s suspension have not been made public by the university. However, the commissioning of the expensive graduation chairs is not the first report of high spending under Purcell’s responsibility. The university has been under fire previously for high marketing and travel expenses, including a trip to a conference in Miami for university staff members.
The university claims that it will launch a scheme to finance the production of the chairs through donation and sponsorship, but offers no detailed information on this plan.