In defence of ‘overpaid’ university vice chancellors
Jo Johnson, minister for universities and science, has unveiled plans to require universities to publicly justify paying their leaders anything above the prime minister’s salary of £150,000. From the Labour side, Lord Adonis told the House of Lords that vice-chancellors on high rates of pay are setting an example of greed to their staff, while Labour’s university spokesman, Gordon Marsden, has demanded action, not words, to curb top payers.
But are university leaders really overpaid? Who are we comparing them with? Even the £434,000 earned by the sector’s top earner, the University of Bath’s Dame Glynis Breakwell, is tiny compared with the £1.75 million recently revealed to have been paid by the BBC to sports presenter Gary Lineker in 2016-17.
If you don’t like that comparison, think about equivalent jobs in comparable countries. A quick Google search reveals that in the latest year for which figures are available, eight US college presidents each earned over $2 million (£1.5 million). Nine Australian vice-chancellors earned more than A$1 million (£600,000). In Canada, as far back as 2010, Ontario’s top university boss was being paid more than C$1 million (£600,000). Even in New Zealand, the University of Auckland’s vice-chancellor earns more than NZ$710,000 (£400,000). So, if anything, UK vice-chancellors’ pay is low by international standards – and, of course, there is an international market for university heads, just as there is for academic researchers. Top professors in the US and Canada can earn the equivalent of well over £200,000. Disgraceful, isn’t it?
So what if VC pay were capped at the £150,000 (a daft comparison, incidentally, as the PM’s salary was artificially suppressed by David Cameron, who had private means and a high-earning wife)? It wouldn’t allow ordinary folk’s pay to increase much, clearly. The freed-up £100,000 or so, spread around a medium-sized university with 2,000 staff, would give everybody an extra £4 a month before tax. Don’t spend it all at once.
In reality, a cut for the VC would probably mean a cut for many other managers, too – pro vice-chancellors, deans and even heads of department – to maintain some sort of parity. These cuts might enable you to increase the foot soldiers’ pay by perhaps £6 per month. Good luck with pushing that through, though.
Running a major university today is a hugely demanding job, requiring clear leadership, detailed managerial skill, fundraising ability and considerable stamina – usually on top of a strong, if largely irrelevant, academic record. If you get it wrong, as many do, you usually get the chop – unlike academics, who are virtually unsackable under normal conditions. There isn’t a huge pool of people able and willing to take up the challenge. The job certainly isn’t going to be done satisfactorily by public-spirited citizens on a pro bono basis, let alone by a collective of union members who would rather be working on their research.
Lord Adonis – from whom a period of silence on university matters might be in order, given his recent track record – has made the issue very personal. He accused Breakwell specifically of greed. I bet her email and social media accounts are a delight to read at the moment.
Such targeting was probably, in part, a bid for populism, but Johnson’s stance appears more sinister. In previous public comments in June, he homed in on the vice-chancellor of the University of Southampton, Sir Christopher Snowden, who earns somewhat less than many fourth-tier professional footballers. Snowden had – coincidentally, of course – just been taking the government to task for imposing on us the teaching excellence framework (in which Southampton was given a bronze award).
This is reminiscent of what I had thought was the nadir of this type of behaviour: the occasion when, just before the 2015 general election, shadow universities minister Liam Byrne reputedly threatened vice-chancellors opposed to Labour’s then policy of reducing university fees to £6,000 a year with an inquiry into their pay.
British universities are freestanding institutions, rather than the fawning creatures of the state that they are in many other countries. They have accountable governing bodies that should be left to get on with setting strategies and determining executive pay structures, even if the febrile court of public opinion doesn’t like it. Perhaps those with the resources – like Oxbridge and several other Russell Group outfits – and with the nerve should declare full independence.
Vice-chancellors are, like us all, a varied bunch. Some I’ve known were inspiring leaders, with great talents and vision. Others were as mad as a box of frogs. But I’ve rarely known one who wasn’t fully committed to the job. They don’t deserve this public obloquy.
This article was first published by Times Higher Education.