At the beginning of 2017 it looked as if it would be a regular business-as-usual annus mirabilis for England’s vice-chancellors. But now in the December winter, the annus has become decidedly horribilis as they encounter headline opprobrium from tabloid to broadsheet, and stern lectures from politicians amid claims VCs are “arrogant, defensive and out-of-touch”.

It’s all about pay and packages

According to The Sunday Times England’s university leaders have accepted “inflation-busting pay rises of up to 10% this year in defiance of government demands to rein in their six-figure salaries” – all against a backdrop of new rules to lift the fee cap on degrees, “allowing universities to charge £11,100 a year for a new two-year course to be offered from 2019”.

Meanwhile The Daily Mail reports on an academic study which found that remuneration of vice-chancellors “rose by a staggering 54 per cent between 1997 and 2015 – nearly four times that of an average lecturer”, adding that annual increases in VC pay “are not readily explainable by performance or other indicators”.

On top of this some specific cases have sparked controversy, including:

● Professor Dame Glynis Breakwell, of Bath University, the UK’s highest paid vice-chancellor on a salary package of £468,000, announced she was stepping down at the end of the summer term next year amid continuing controversy over her pay.

● Sir Christopher Snowden, of the University of Southampton, was accused of insulting staff and being out of touch after it emerged he had received £423,000 for the last academic year. According to reports he accepted a £70,000 pay rise during a redundancy process in which 75 academics were fired.

● Professor Christina Slade, VC of Bath Spa University until August this year, was reported to have been paid a package of more than £800,000 in her final year – including £429,000 “for loss of office” on top of her £250,000 salary and other benefits.

The reaction and response

Sir Anthony Seldon, vice-chancellor of the University of Buckingham, said the university sector’s response to the debate about vice-chancellors’ pay had been embarrassing and humiliating, and had damaged its reputation.

“The sector has not reacted well. We have lost the public argument and we should have responded earlier when it first came up,” he said.

“There should be an independent review around this whole position,” he said.

Charles Heymann, commenting in the UK higher education policy platform Wonkhe, said vice-chancellors had come across as “arrogant, defensive and out-of-touch” in regard to salaries, adding “they have been all but tone-deaf in handling legitimate questions about inflation-busting pay and pension packages”.

“It is rare to find any institutional leader on the record accepting the need to account for their publicly-subsidised remuneration, or even exhibiting genuine humility – it is, after all, a privilege to get rewarded richly …”

Heymann acknowledged that vice-chancellors “lead complex, international businesses with thousands of staff and students … It’s a very tough job, requiring experience, skill and commitment”.

However, he added: “But how their remuneration is agreed reflects a university’s moral compass and corporate governance – its accountability and openness; its ethos, values and ethics; its commitment to fair pay and due reward. If a university can’t do the small things right, like being transparent over pay, then it will not be trusted on the big challenges faced by the sector.”

Writing in The Guardian Aditya Chakrabortty declared: “We should all be scandalised by what is happening in academia”:

“It is a tale of vast greed and of vandalism – and it is being committed right at the top, by the very people who are meant to be custodians of these institutions. If it continues, it will wreck one of the few world-beating industries Britain has left.”

So what’s been done about it?

Universities Minister Jo Johnson has announced that a “new regulatory framework” for VC salaries will be published in the new year, adding that the Office for Students would require universities to ensure their “governance is fit for purpose”. This would mean “rules requiring much clearer evidence of the independence of committees deciding vice-chancellors’ pay”.

Universities, he said, will also have to explain the pay gap between top earners and the rest of their staff.

“When students are paying for their own tuition fees, there is a greater expectation of greater accountability to students, but also to the taxpayer, who is underwriting the student loan book.”

Former Labour Party cabinet minister Andrew Adonis has called for an independent inquiry chaired by the archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, into the “outrageous” pay of university vice-chancellors.


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