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CFO Philip Harding is driving private finance in an old institution


Philip Harding, chief financial officer of City University

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As the chief financial officer of a 117-year-old institution, City University’s Philip Harding knows that the decisions he makes every day could have an impact far into the future. Although the temptation is to focus on the challenges City faces in the short term, including implementing a £6.5 million cost reduction programme and looming government funding cuts, Harding believes longer term planning is also important.

The landscape of higher education funding is changing dramatically and universities are being encouraged to have a more commercial outlook, to be more entrepreneurial and to find innovative ways of partnering with the private sector. This means one of the most important qualities for university finance directors like Harding is the ability to “think about alternative futures”.

Philip Harding, City University FD“Within higher education we’ve been perhaps a little too short term focused because we’ve been driven by government funding, which is just one year after the next,” he says. “We haven’t necessarily had to develop the range of skills around thinking longer term, despite the fact that as universities we are very long-term organisations.”

City University was founded in 1894 and comprises seven schools located throughout London, including the Cass Business School and the City Law School. More than 21,000 students from 160 countries study at the university and it employs 1,800 teaching and support staff from 70 countries.

Harding was brought in to help revive City’s fortunes and was appointed CFO in May 2009 after City reported a loss of £5 million on turnover of £180 million, its second successive annual deficit. The brief from City’s vice-chancellor and governing body was to return the institution to a profitable position, although Harding adds that the university’s aim is not solely to make a profit.

“We’re a not-for-profit organisation,” he says. “We’re not here to make profits but what we do need to do is generate enough money to cover our costs and to create some capacity for investment – investment in improving services for students, investment in facilities, investing in our research base, investing in ensuring that we’re academically more successful in the future than we have been in the past.”

Creating social benefit

Working for a university enables Harding to combine his interests in education and finance. Having studied management science at Warwick University his ambition was to go into teaching. But after gaining a first, he got a Research Council award to do a Masters in information systems at the London School of Economics. Once qualified he opted for a job in finance.

He spent his early career in industry working at BP and Prudential, before becoming finance director of the Royal Brompton and Harefield NHS Trust. He later joined the higher education sector where he has worked for the past 12 years. He was finance director at the University of Bedfordshire and then spent eight years at the University of Westminster before moving to City.

“It’s a sector that suits me,” Harding says. “I enjoy the sense of working in an organisation that’s creating social and economic benefit to individuals and to the country at large. It’s good for me to be able to use my professional background in finance and the knowledge and experience I’ve got to try and support what universities are doing currently.”

At City, Harding drew up a financial turnaround plan involving cost reductions of £6.5 million, which the University Council approved last February. He says City’s problems were the result of a cost base that had been allowed to drift out of control.

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CFO Philip Harding is driving private finance in an old institution
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