Universities across England have spent some 20m on art to furnish their buildings or museums over the past five years, a BBC investigation has found.
One work of art, from the University of Oxford, cost 7.9m.
Unison criticised the spend, saying universities were choosing “style over substance”.
Universities said the works of art often went on public display and were used for teaching and research.
A Freedom of Information request by the BBC collated the information for 2010-2015.
|The 10 English universities that spent the most on art|
|University||Total spend on art 2010-2015|
|University of Oxford||8.9m|
|University of Cambridge||5.8m|
|Oxford Brookes University||552,000|
|University of Warwick||322,000|
|University of Leicester||148,000|
|London School of Economics||125,000|
|University of Surrey||110,000|
|University of Exeter||110,000|
|Goldsmiths, University of London||103,000|
Anna Somers Cocks, chief executive of The Art Newspaper said: “It’s a question of proportion, you have to distinguish what is for decorating and what is for public consumption.
“When a work of art is for a museum, the money comes from a different funding purse as the museum has a separate budget.”
A Unison spokeswoman said: “Unison is appalled that universities can think about investing 20m in works of art when a significant number of institutions still pay their employees significantly less than the living wage.
“Universities must be more accountable on how they spend their money. The huge amount going on works of art suggests that during these austere times, universities are choosing style over substance.
“As nice as they might be to look at, paintings, statues and sculptures don’t enhance teaching, and leave the lowest paid staff on campus unable to have a decent standard of living.”
|TOP FIVE MOST EXPENSIVE WORKS OF ART PURCHASED DURING THE REQUESTED PERIOD|
|University||Work of art||Total|
|University of Oxford||Portrait of Mademoiselle Claus, Manet||7.9m|
|University of Cambridge||Extreme Unction, Nicolas Poussin||3.9m|
|University of Oxford||Coin collection, Asthall Hoard||280,000|
|University of Oxford||Clodion||233,199|
|Oxford Brookes University||The Rain Pavilion||158,137|
The most expensive item purchased by the University of Oxford was the Portrait of Mademoiselle Claus by the French impressionist Edouard Manet, which cost 7.9m, of which 5.9m was from the Heritage Lottery Fund and 850,000 from the Art Fund.
The piece was purchased for the university’s Ashmolean Museum, which is open to the public free of charge.
A spokeswoman for the University of Oxford said: “The Ashmolean’s mission is to be the world’s greatest university museum of art and archaeology.
“The museum seeks to acquire objects and works of art, either through bequest, gift or purchase, which relate to and enhance the permanent collections.
“Newly acquired objects are made available to the widest possible audience for enjoyment and study, either by their display in the museum’s galleries or by entering the study collections which are used by scholars, students and interested members of the public from across the world.”
The University of Cambridge is home to eight museums, which contain more than five million objects, artefacts, and works of art.
During the period 2010-2015, the university spent 3.9m on Extreme Unction by the 17th Century Frenchman Nicolas Poussin.
A spokesman said the majority of the sum came from the Heritage Lottery Fund, 242,000 from the Art Fund and its members, with the rest coming from donations from other charitable organisations and the public.
“All of the works purchased have been acquired with funds raised or restricted specifically for the purpose of acquiring works for the museum collections.
“All major purchases go on public display, rather than being added to the reserve collections, and are frequently used for teaching and research.
“Extreme Unction also went on a UK-wide tour, allowing Cambridge to share the painting with the nation at large,” he said.
Durham University said it was “a custodian of many fine treasures”.
The Geosculpture, a geological map, was created by John De Pauley which cost 90,000. The university said the piece was largely funded by donations.
“The university organises regular free guided tours of the collection and staff, students and members of the public are encouraged to come and enjoy it,” a spokesman said.
Oxford Brookes University said the institution began life as a School of Art 150 years ago and it was “proud of these roots”.
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