The REF results vs VC pay

In recent years much has been made within the sector about the rise of vice chancellor’s pay packages. Paying top dollar for the best leaders – so the conventional wisdom states – is an investment that will lead to better performance.

So do the REF results suggest that ‘super vice chancellors’ attracted by competitive salaries deliver results? At a first glance, maybe. There is a positive linear relationship between vice chancellor’s total annual remuneration (as of 2012-13) and the percentage of 4* and 3* research achieved by an institution. Some of the highest achieving institutions in the REF pay their senior leaders’ very handsomely indeed, including Imperial (£330k), LSE (£480k), Oxford (£434k) and Bath (£384k). Excluding small and specialist institutions, we get a correlation coefficient of 0.52 when putting the datasets together.

Of course, correlation is by no means equal to causation. Many of the top paying institutions are established REF and RAE ‘performers’ with large budgets, and the table of vice chancellor salaries appears to equate with these institutions’ reputations and ability-to-pay as much as any noticeable improvement in research performance. Informally controlling for these factors makes the relationship much less significant and appears to confirm the argument of many opponents of soaring executive pay: that research and university performance is a collaborative effort, and not an individual one.

Thus the data perhaps demonstrates how possible it is to achieve relatively strong results without paying the biggest salaries. Vice chancellors at the University of Bradford (£198k) and the University of Ulster (£204k) both appear to be relatively good ‘value for money’ compared to some of their peers, with both of their institutions coming ‘ahead of the line’ in terms of relative performance. Top of that list appears to be Colin Riordan (£252k) at Cardiff University, already noted as one of the REF’s top achievers this year, having not been paid a highest-end salary.

It remains to be seen what practical effect the REF results will have for the fate of vice chancellors and their pay packets, which even at their lowest appear to the majority of students and staff to be extremely high. Remuneration committees at many institutions may wish to take a long look at the data before rushing into their respective assessments.

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