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Jo Grady of the UCU responds to HEPI report on vice-chancellors’ pay

  • 31 August 2023
  • By Dr Jo Grady

To suggest that widespread condemnation of spiralling vice-chancellor pay is a product of confected outrage by unions is to seriously underestimate the level of anger this glaring injustice demands. It also diminishes the reality of a significant and growing pay gap ratio between those who lead universities, and those who keep them running.

It’s undeniable that the job of vice-chancellor is demanding and complex. It’s a high-stakes role that demands a particular skill set and a huge amount of dedication.

The same can be said, though, for many other roles within a university that attract substantially lower rates of pay. Higher education leaders seem immune to arguments about the need to keep wider staff pay competitive with the private sector, so they can’t expect sympathy for that logic when it comes to their own remuneration.

In recent years, spending on staff overall as a proportion of university income has fallen to a record low. But there is little evidence that this spending restraint is being applied equally. University staff have repeatedly been told that the cupboard is bare while watching their leaders hit the headlines because of bumper pay increases.

Collectively, the remuneration of vice-chancellors now amounts to over £43m per year. That hefty bill falls primarily on the shoulders of taxpayers and students. With an average package valued at £269,000, this means that the typical university needs to recruit 30 undergraduate students paying maximum fees just to cover the costs of the top job. For the highest-paid vice-chancellor in 2022, on a pay packet of £714,000, that total rises to 78 students.

This throws some light on why the issue is such a bone of contention. These exorbitant rates of pay weren’t defensible before tuition fees rose precipitously in 2012. Now, in an age where university finances are heavily dependent on student fee income, funnelling such a large amount towards leadership pay while students – and many of the staff who teach and support them – struggle to make ends meet is not just inappropriate, it is wrong.

It’s doubly galling for staff who, on top of seeing their pay suppressed, are being faced with unrealistic student recruitment targets which add stress and workload. Rather than shaving money off the wage packets at the top, too many institutions are choosing to cut costs by axing frontline staff and cutting courses which they deem not to be financially viable because they don’t attract enough students, even though many of them play a vital role in widening participation and encouraging the future pipeline of talent into our universities.

The question of talent is also a pertinent one when it comes to vice-chancellor pay. The argument advanced in the paper is that encouraging restraint in top executive pay will make it harder to attract the best candidates for vice chancellor, but this is conjecture. Meanwhile, UCU research shows that two-thirds of university staff say they’re considering leaving the sector over issues with pensions, pay and working conditions.

I’ve yet to see any evidence of a shortage of decent candidates for leadership positions, but I have seen a shortage of leadership across the sector as vice-chancellors have actively chosen to let the current dispute over pay and conditions disrupt student learning and graduations rather than address the concerns of staff.

Many vice-chancellors probably could be earning more as CEOs in the private sector, but the report shows that they are already earning more than most other comparable roles. They may also find their roles as precarious as two-thirds of the staff in higher education too, if they were to move to the private sector – where overseeing years and years of industrial action would likely lead to the chop.

When UCU’s ballot over pay and conditions opened, I asked members of the public what they thought of vice-chancellor pay. People were shocked at the figures, but this wasn’t just it. There was a sense of condemnation for the leaders drinking it up, whilst everyone else in the sector suffered. There was a sense of ‘do they have no shame’. As vice-chancellors are so fond of reminding staff, the unique mission of higher education is about more than just money. But they seem to ignore this maxim when it comes to their own pay.

The voluntary code introduced to curb excessive pay rises hasn’t worked. Remuneration committees remain largely opaque and many continue to make outrageous awards to vice-chancellors that are completely out of step with wider staff pay. The typical vice chancellor earns over seven times more than the average employee.[1] This is never justifiable – let alone during a cost-of-living crisis when some staff are forced to use food banks.

A fairer system would see vice chancellors’ salaries indexed to wider pay in the sector at a level that reflects the fact that all university staff – not just those at the top – are crucial to the sector’s success.

[1] As of 2021/22 (the last year we have data for), the median was 7.3.

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