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Some issues are even more important than vice-chancellors’ pay – such as autonomy.

  • 7 September 2017
  • By Nick Hillman

The summer showed that vice-chancellors’ pay is a matter of public interest. Counter-intuitively, and in contrast to almost every other issue affecting universities, the best way to address the concerns might be for institutions to become a little more inward-looking. In other words, or so I have argued elsewhere (‘On v-c pay, clarity begins at home‘), they could focus a little more on how leaders are performing relative to each institution’s  goals and a little less on how each leader’s pay compares to those of other senior leaders in higher education or elsewhere. This is because the latter approach risks endless across-the-board ratcheting upwards.

Some people have told me this is a mealy-mouthed recommendation. They have said we need much tougher regulatory action. Jo Johnson, the Minister for Universities, Science, Research and Innovation, agrees and is today set to announce a set of ideas that seem at first glance more suited to the public sector than institutions sitting between the public and private realms.

You do not need to believe think every single vice-chancellor is renumerated perfectly in line with their experience, responsibilities and skills to wonder if knee-jerk interventions are the right way to deal with the issue. One reason we need to be careful is that there are some issues that are even more important than vice-chancellors’ pay – such as university autonomy.

It is no coincidence that we have both the most autonomous universities in Europe and also took the top two places in the most recent world rankings, which were issued earlier this week. That autonomy displays itself in the freedom of universities to admit whichever students they like, in the freedom to set their own research priorities and, yes, in the freedom to set the terms and conditions of their staff.

Just a few months ago, when the Higher Education and Research Act was still in short trousers, there was widespread concern that the Office for Students would not have due regard to university autonomy. Insisting they tackle vice-chancellors’ pay as one of the most urgent priorities (and before they have taken charge) will not assuage such concerns.

After all, if determining vice-chancellors’ pay is an appropriate issue for politicians to instruct and empower their regulators on in the new ways proposed, then why are other university staffing issues any different? (The Government has privately long been worried about the funding of the main academics’ pension scheme, known as the USS, for example.)

Other countries’ experience may be instructive here. When we looked at Germany, we concluded:

One big advantage of the UK over Germany … is that German professors are generally civil servants. Compared to Britain, which has some of the most autonomous universities in Europe (according to the European University Association), government involvement can make for slow and clunky staff appointments in Germany and place an obstacle in the way of building an international academic community.

The proposed new approach to senior staff pay can only be the most appropriate response to the rash of summer stories if the current arrangements are thought to have had their day. That is unproven: after all, did anyone seriously believe that the renumeration committees would act in an identical way this year, after the recent furore, to how they have done things in the past?

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