A top British university has been criticised for spending £1.4m (€1.65m) on art including works by Pablo Picasso and Andy Warhol while it charges students £9,000-a-year (€10.600) and pays hundreds of staff less than the Living Wage.
Durham University added to its collection of fine treasures when it kitted out the new administrative Palatine Centre in the historic city, the Law School, the Mountjoy Centre and a library extension.
Pieces were specially commissioned, and some North East artists’ work is on display, along with the Warhol and Picasso pieces.
Unison, the public sector workers’ union, said the expense could not be justified by the university, which is one of the top 100 in the world.
John McDade, of Unison, said a survey had showed 555 workers were paid less than the Living Wage, which currently stands at £7.45 (€8.80) an hour.
“We are not saying art is not important, but it is about priorities,” he said.
“You wouldn’t go out and buy a chandelier for your house if you couldn’t afford to feed your family.”
He said while Durham University may claim the art enhanced its reputation, he believed low pay rates detracted from it.
The university was understood to have opposed a Freedom of Information request from the Palatinate student newspaper to reveal the cost of the art, on security grounds, though that was overturned after a review.
Last year thieves broke into the university’s Oriental Museum and stole Chinese items worth more than £2m (€2.3m).
A Durham University spokesperson said: “Durham University is a custodian of many fine treasures and developing our collections of graphic art and sculpture for public display was an essential part of the original concept for the Palatine Centre.
“Some of the artwork was specially commissioned and reflects the University’s academic strengths and the heritage of our region.
“The works that can now be viewed in the Centre, in the adjacent Law School and nearby public spaces represent a rich and varied presentation of 20th and 21st century art.
“The University organises free guided tours of the collection and staff, students and members of the public are encouraged to come and enjoy it.
“The Palatine Centre was part of the wider £60m (€70.9m) Gateway Programme, funded through a mixture of capital grants from the Higher Education Funding Council, University reserves, property disposals and bank borrowing.”
The spokesperson said more than £1.1m (€1.3m) of the cost of the art was funded by savings from the “capital programme as a whole”.