This article is more than 5 years old

A leading question

Are we right to criticise the pay of vice chancellors, and why are they so quiet in the public debate? Phil Pilkington examines leadership in higher education.
This article is more than 5 years old

Phil Pilkington is an Honorary Teaching Fellow at Coventry and Deputy Chair at Middlesex University SU

To paraphrase Stanley Baldwin: vice chancellors are a group of hard faced men and women who have done well out of the class war. During the recent populist furore over VC pay, one common line of defence was that they were not present at the remuneration committees that set their rate.

Of course they weren’t. They were present, however, when their subordinates’ pay was determined. There is a circularity – a VC ensures that committees are aware of the ways to measure performance and make the right decisions; and it seems odd that a Nobel Prize was awarded to someone for ‘inventing’ Nudge Theory, where subtle committee management has been a required skill set for managers for decades.

The shock expressed at the pay of university senior managers (as well as the increase in their number) is perhaps partly due to the wider perception of vice chancellors and universities of being of notable intelligence, but not quite of or in the world of hard-nosed business. They may be a pillar of the County Nomenklatura – belonging to those ornamental groupings of bishops, chief constables, lord lieutenants with their deputies and circuit judges. There is a heritage charm, and an impression of a heritage conservation but not of conservatism, which jars with the CEO-complexity defence of high pay.

Surveys of VCs dislike the damage to the reputation of higher education that the media and government have caused with criticisms of management pay and value for money, but reputation management is a key aspect of their strategic management. Were they asleep at the wheel? Where were they in the campaign for NHS funding, excoriating on the abolition of bursaries for nursing students – not because of a threat to their financial viability with falling enrolments, but out of moral disgust? Maybe it is more effective to have the quiet word in the club about how awful it all is, or perhaps there is an ex-university panjandrum in the Lords who could put down a question.

It’s oh so quiet

To understand why VCs are so quiet is to understand the new form of leadership in the universities – the quiet and (as a self-image) competent management is in place to ensure the survival of the institution. The business plans are simple: to survive by growing student recruitment, and improving student satisfaction to maintain a good league table position. The top 30 to 40 universities will also focus on research income, and the related postgraduate completion rates to maintain rights for grant applications.

Michael Shattock defined four types of university management since the end of the nineteenth century, with the emergence of the current management-corporate approach arising in the late 1980’s. But the consumer model of the student imposed on universities from the earlier 2000s onwards, along with the open regulatory declaration that some universities are expected to ‘exit’ the sector, has narrowed the focus for management even further.

Other business aims – of community, of arts, and of international/global understanding – are not marginal, but valued only as contributory to that model for survival. And the scope for change or aspiration is constrained by it. Yet the simple circle of growth – and the marketing, teaching/learning strategies, and estates development that contribute to that aim – may not be the complex vision much quoted to justify the large rewards for the VCs and their lieutenants. The high rewards come with the current model of governance of universities.

As such, to be outraged at vice chancellors’ pay is to miss the point. It is wrong to call out their greed, or shout ‘snouts in the trough’, or to argue that the poor students are in debt to pay these inflated salaries – or for the grace and favour homes, first class air fares, and chauffeurs. This is a form of conservative moralising – the ‘politics of envy’. The critical point is the weakness of governance of the institutions, historically contingent on marketisation as the price to pay for the growth of student numbers. After much anguish, there has been a lowering of VC’s salaries when recruitment comes around. But the questions of what larger changes are needed to governance oversight are left untouched.

Governing the universities

That weakness in governance is not good for the sector, but it is not a surprising outcome. The great and the good of boards are flattered to be there, and they wish to contribute but are not sure how. They are impressed with the doctorates and the finery of the robes on the dais for the graduation in the cathedral as the organ throbs out the cloaca maximus diapason. They pore over the data on retention, enrolments, quality audits, the land bank planning, the business liaison, and research applications. They learn the acronyms – TEF, REF, QAA, OFS, OIA, HESA. Yet few truly understand, and fewer still take control of a juggernaut that has its own momentum.

The suggested dynamism of institutional leadership hides structural problems: that non-executive governance is trying to catch up with management, and often failing to understand what is happening – and that governance is operationally and strategically unable to answer the larger questions of the existence of their institutions and the sector as a whole, because there is no space for that discourse. Audit and compliance may be outstanding, but that is not sufficient for leadership.

The consequences of weakened discourse about ‘customers’, and the ‘market’ is to accept the limits of the possible action and consequences. It is a credible claim to say that the sector’s governance has failed to defend universities against the encircling movement by government against them, and this may be because of previous complicity – but they are now unable to do otherwise for fear of further damage to corporate reputation, and are unable to provide an alternative critique of government policy. Even if they or their vice chancellors could, it would simply be ‘beside the point’ for them – it would not contribute to the fiduciary duties that they have first and foremost.

As John Ralston Saul noted on complexity, there is a sense of urgency and importance of governance from the executive to the lay persons as a sort of filling in of the available space of discourse – “a false air of complicity with the way our societies are run [and] is maintained through an atmosphere of busy managers, swirling markets, specialist reassurances and floods of shapeless information”. But the consequences for this failure, or acquiescence to the market model, are of a large scale on the public discourse. Questions of national socio-economic geography, and the part that universities may play in its alteration and betterment are never considered.

Filling in the space

There are some who hark back to the ‘golden age’ when there was a collegial approach to the management of universities – the ‘Donnish Dominion’ of the 1950s to the mid-80’s. But this is not a viable alternative – it was an era of elitist restriction on participation, an absence of quality assurance, and little activity from students’ organisations other than an evening dress debate, and a contribution to the Aldermaston March fully behind Canon Collins and Bertrand Russell. The dons had little to do in a stagnant (and small) pond. The shock of the Thatcherite winds blew the professoriate aside and the new management landscape appeared.

When the UK university leaders travel to the US to consider how the future might look, they should consider, with some irony, the principles of civic governance prescribed by Yale in 1828: that the university’s values shall be of participation and democracy. There are difficulties for Yale in what would have constituted democracy in ante-bellum USA and what would have counted as a fully participating member of that democracy, but it is at least an alternative.

There has been talk in the UK of reinventing universities: democratising them, returning to the public sphere, being within their communities. But there has been little suggestion about the practical steps that would be taken to bring those desires about. If it is to be realised then it must be articulated, and not by the moralising about senior managers who are restricted and controlled in how they can act.

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