In defence of the ‘fat cats’ of academia
If you’ve missed this furore, Dame Glynis is not a historical sex offender, war criminal or transphobe. She is (or was) the Vice-Chancellor of the University of Bath. She committed the awful crime of being the best-paid Vice-Chancellor in the UK. Her salary, £434,000 plus various add-ons including a nice house, was deemed by our Jacobin politicians to be vastly excessive. She stuck out the flak from people like Sir Michael Barber, Jo Johnson and Lord Adonis for several weeks, recently (albeit narrowly) winning a vote of confidence from her university. She seems to have been a successful VC, boosting the university’s recruitment and revenue. But now she has been bullied into retirement.
Now you probably think that her pay was a bit on the high side. Compared with most of us, it was. However it is considerably less than that of some top BBC presenters whose names have been bandied around recently. At the Beeb, the scandal has been that women are paid less than men – unlike in academia, where for once a woman has been on top. But in this sector, the demand is that her pay be reduced, rather than increased, indeed that all VCs’ pay should be reduced. On average they currently earn just over £250,000 – but in the future, universities will be required to justify any salary over £150,000.
We can argue about how salaries are determined, and there may be some governance issues at Bath as elsewhere. But artificially holding pay down – and you can bet this £150k limit will not quickly be adjusted for inflation – is never a good thing. Despite a common misperception, universities are not part of the public sector – unlike the BBC, which is.
Britain has always prided itself of having an independent, autonomous higher education sector, unlike, say, Germany, where professors are civil servants. British universities are less and less financially dependent on the state – less so than many defence contractors or firms like Capita, where there is no limit on CEO pay – but successive governments have tightened their grip in a variety of ways.
Pay should not be controlled by the government. Our universities operate in an international market for talent. The equivalent of our vice-chancellors are paid far more in the USA (where in 2015 eight university presidents were paid over $2 million), in Canada or Australia. We will find it increasingly difficult to retain or attract internationally mobile academic leaders if this new pay cap holds – and of course there will be downward pressure on the pay of other staff.
And, while campus unions predictably moan about top pay, cutting VC remuneration will inevitably have knock-on effects. It will be more difficult to get people to step into middle-management roles in HE – the Deans, Heads of Department and so on who are vitally necessary to herd those academic cats, the lecturers who prefer research and conferences to teaching undergraduates. Without this intermediate managerial layer our hitherto internationally successful universities – and ultimately academic jobs – will be seriously at risk.