Friday, 7 November 2014

Higher Education KPIs #2 – EBITDA

I posted a couple of weeks ago about staff costs as a proportion of income. Another performance indicator which has become common in Universities over the past few years is EBITDA.

No, not an obscure Scrabble word (although BAITED for 9 points is do-able with the same letters), but an acronym for a financial indicator, which helps you understand the underlying financial strength of a university.

Depreciation and

There’s some jargon in there. Let’s unpack it a little.

Earnings is just what it sounds like. Total income minus total expenditure.

But, accounting isn’t as easy as looking at what’s in your wallet at the end of the day. It’s about keep track on real cost and values of assets and income, and recognising that there’s a difference between what you use once and once only and what keeps being usable. (So, I’ve just had a cup of coffee. The coffee granules are gone and used; the mug I can wash and use again.) And that‘s where some of the other terms come into play.

Interest means interest that is payable on debts owed. It’s a cost, for sure, but it’s a cost that can vary because of decisions taken by the borrower (how long do you borrow for? Fixed or variable interest rate? Secured or unsecured? Wonga or the Co-op?). So interest payments don’t necessarily tell you much about financial strength – but they might tell you a lot about the financial acumen of the management team.

Tax, sad to say, is similar. Not for universities – there isn’t often a university tax scandal (but see here for an exception!) – but remember that EBITDA is from the commercial world. And then think of Starbucks and Amazon and realise that tax, if you’re rich and powerful enough, is optional. So tax costs measure the skill of your accountant.

Depreciation and Amortization are both accounting concepts.

Depreciation is a way of measuring the value that’s left in an asset which is reusable. Imagine a whiteboard in a classroom. The lecturer can write on the whiteboard, get value out of it for teaching, and then wipe it clean at the end. It’s got value, but it hasn’t been used up by the class. But over time, it becomes less clean: people use the wrong marker pens; the shiny surface dulls with being cleaned too often. After a few years you need a new one.

This gives a problem if you want to measure how much the whiteboard costs for a particular class. If you put all of the cost against the first class in which it is used, that class seems expensive, and the continuing value of the whiteboard isn’t recognised. If you only charge the cost to the class where it finally needs a replacing, then again it isn’t right: the wear and tear occurred over years, not in one hour. And so you take the cost of the whiteboard and allocate it, a bit at a time, to the activities for which it is used.

Now in accounting this is done over time, so if the whiteboard cost £50 and is estimated to have a lifetime of five years, then you charge £10 per year, for five years, as the accounting cost. (You still need to pay up front, of course – as I said, accounting isn’t about what’s in your wallet but about true costs and values.) Critically, there is judgment involved in how depreciation works. And every university will have accounting policies which set out the rules of thumb applied.

Amortization is a similar concept, but refers to the cost of intangible assets. (A white board is tangible – you can see it, and if it drops off the wall onto your foot it will probably hurt. A university’s reputation is intangible: it can fall without hurting anyone straightaway: the pain take a while to appear.) Universities do have intangible assets – intellectual property, for instance. Again, there’s judgment involved in identifying how much specifically to allow for amortization.

(As a cheery footnote, the mort in amortization is the same as the mort in mortgage, and both come from the medieval French mort=death.)

So EBITDA is a measure of earnings which is free of financial and accounting wizardry. It’s a very Gradgrindian measure, for fans of Dickens. Or for fans of twentieth century politics, it’s like Sir Alec Douglas Home and his matchsticks.

For universities it has become a favourite of funders and regulators. HEFCE use it to decide whether a university needs to get permission to borrow (take a look at Annex C): if a university’s total financial commitments are more than five times its average EBITDA then written permission from HEFCE is required for the borrowing. And so it has a practical consequence, which helps to explain why university governing bodies are interested in it. EBITDA is defined for HEFCE’s purposes by BUFDG (link downloads a word document). Quite a technical subject!

EBITDA can be a cash amount (useful if you want to see if you’re over the HEFCE ratio) or it can be expressed as a percentage of income. An EBITDA of £1m might be brilliant if your turnover is £5m, but if your turnover is £100m then perhaps you’re running a little close to the wire.

Disclaimer: I'm not an accountant. If you want to understand EBITDA then the above might help. If you want to pass a CIPFA exam read a CIPFA textbook!

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