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Vice-chancellor salaries in the UK – cause for concern or targets of opportunity?

September 7, 2017


Ian Richardson and David Jason in Tom Sharpe’s Porterhouse Blue

I have some sympathy with Britain’s university vice-chancellors. They have been told by Jo Johnson, the Universities Minister (who has never run a business), that in future they will have to justify why their salaries should be higher than that of the Prime Minister (who has also never run a business).

You see, over the past thirty years, universities have been encouraged to think of themselves as businesses. The business of churning out graduates is only a part of their purpose. Academics like my brother, who was a professor of statistics at a major London university, have been under increasing pressure to justify their existence by bringing in large sums of money for research. Many these days seem to see teaching students as an encumbrance. They regard research as their primary function.

The top universities form partnerships with private sector companies. Faculty go off and form companies. Some become very rich, beyond the dreams of Jo Johnson and Theresa May. Mike Lynch, for example, who left Cambridge to found Autonomy, and is now a serial entrepreneur. Other companies – such as Cambridge Analytica, the people who weaponised Facebook for Donald Trump – avail of university research by poaching the researchers.

Hackers from China and Russia are busy attacking our universities in an attempt to suck away their intellectual property. There must be some useful work going on to attract their attention.

The government expects these institutions to be powerhouses, not the cloistered collections of other-worldly scholars and eccentric misfits you would find on the pages of Tom Sharpe’s Porterhouse Blue. And yes, many of them do look more like businesses these days.

So why do our politicians (most of whom have never run businesses) think that the CEOs of universities, which is what vice-chancellors are, should have their salaries capped, when they are encouraged to think of themselves as businesses, and when their products – in the form of graduates and knowledge – are arguably many times more valuable than the output of WPP, the advertising agency whose CEO was paid £63 million for his efforts in 2015?

Oxford and Cambridge came first and second in a recent world university ranking. Does our government think that the people who run them might not be in demand by universities in the States who could hire ten prime ministers with the salaries they pay their top academics?

I fear that benchmarking the salaries of senior academics against those of government ministers is a serious case of apples and oranges. I have no idea whether the vice-chancellor of Oxford is worth three times as much as the prime minister, though in the case of the current incumbent of Downing Street there should be no point of comparison, because I wouldn’t pay Theresa May at all for the damage she’s inflicting on the country.

There are plenty of other executives in the public sector who are paid considerably more than Mrs May – local council chiefs, senior civil servants, head teachers, heads of quangos. Why are the government picking on vice-chancellors?

If you’re of a paranoid disposition, you might think that the Russians are busy trying to destabilise our universities with their fake stories, thus making it easier for their hackers to steal our intellectual property.

I think the answer is simpler than that. It’s politics. Senior academics are targets of opportunity for a government that is desperate to latch on to any means of gaining a quick popularity fix. You could actually say they are practicing the politics of envy. An irony, really, given that that phrase was one of the favourite sticks with which Margaret Thatcher and her cronies delighted in beating the nasty socialists over the head.

Despite my sympathy, I have no brief for university vice-chancellors. I’m sure some are worth their salaries, and others not. But I’m even less enthused by second-rate politicians, especially by those who lead our rudderless, one-eyed government. Perhaps it would help if we paid them what vice-chancellors get.

From → Education, Politics, UK

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