A new paper from HEPI today – which nicks its title from a 2019 paper on the determinants of VC pay in the UK – grounds its argument that VC pay is “scapegoated” in a number of frames that deserve scrutiny.
I’ll try to set aside the clickbait here – it’s tempting, for example, to argue that the author’s line that says:
…every vice-chancellor I have met in over a decade of working with universities has been impressive
…surely just suggests a need to get out more?
But more seriously, significant comparisons are drawn, for example, with the US and Australia – where we find that UK VC pay is, on average, substantially less. But the absence of comparisons with Europe distorts the picture – as does the absence of community college salaries from the US comparison.
Another important “given” is the revenue/complexity mix, where the £2.2 billion annually in cash that rolls in, and the “enormous local, national and international influence” that universities have ends up naturally leading to a need for “high-quality leadership”.
For me those sorts of frames beg questions like – should all of that money flow through autonomous institutions? Should universities be responsible for all that we ask them to be responsible for? And would a cap on VC pay reduce the quality of leadership that we get?
I can make a decent argument, for example, that the frame that suggests that universities have to compete so much might be amended by reducing the level of competition required. It’s getting really quite difficult to identify arguments that prop up the idea that intense/further competition results in better teaching, research or student experience – and there are plenty around that suggest the opposite.
I can also argue that the old “universities do teaching, manage large estates, look after students’ welfare” complexity argument might cause us not to try to find folk that are amazing at running such complexity, but instead to reduce that complexity. Why are universities better landlords than, say, the collectively owned Student Welfare Organisations of Norway? Why would universities be better at mental health than a properly funded NHS?
In some ways UCU’s Jo Grady makes a similar mistake in her retort to the report on HEPI’s site:
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.
That’s not to say taking some of the absurd complexity out of an academic’s role would justify the pay they’re being held on now. But it is to say that that a chunk of that absurd complexity is unnecessary and adds to the overwhelm and burnout in the Ts and Cs portion of UCU’s arguments.
Back on the paper, it’s certainly true that some of the rhetoric around VC pay might be characterised as “divisive”. But I’m certainly not convinced that the Principal-Skinneresque “redoubling efforts to increase awareness of the complex roles of higher education leaders” is the answer – as if detailing the duties will somehow cause the public to think that the pay differentials between the plebs and producers are justifiable in the midst of a cost of living crisis.
I can also make the argument that the level of public funding flowing in and the level of influence (especially over place) flowing out is nowhere near matched by the levels of public accountability I’d like to see over all of that in a healthy, democratic society. And I’d start with separating out some of those functions rather than blithely assuming that “the university” as contemporarily constituted is the right vehicle for all that it does.
I’d also start to look at models which assume the VC is principally an academic leader, and find other ways of securing leadership over all of the other things they currently have in the in-tray – not particularly because of the salary issue, and more because I can find no evidence that VCs are experts in housing, social policy, estates management, urban planning, healthcare, catering and so on.
It’s also fairly undesirable to locate so much power and influence into single institutions and leaders, surely? The slippery conflation between academic freedom, academic autonomy, institutional autonomy and power concentration anchored in the UK’s international success and reputation is eternally vexing.
But mainly what I find frustrating more broadly is the often binary debate about the comparisons drawn between the “private” nature of activity and therefore leadership of universities (profit, competition and so on) and the public/charitable nature of the sector.
It’s frustrating because people tend to hurtle towards two corners – some suggesting that the former means we have to pay the big bucks to get the talent or UK HE will somehow wither on the vine, and the latter suggesting that leaders should be elected, entirely subservient to academic communities and paid peanuts.
However you look at it, universities are quasi-public enterprises and quasi-charitable. That’s a given I do accept – because becoming entirety “public sector” would be a problem for autonomy, and because university systems engage in activity that is private in nature to fund activity that is, in turn, public in nature.
As this piece on The Conversation (on Australian VC pay) explains, in a “real” market business, shareholders assert control by rewarding executives through salaries related to performance, creating an alignment of financial interests. But universities are quasi-market not-for-profit organisations, don’t have controlling owners/shareholders, and their governing councils don’t have the same financial self-interest as shareholders:
The vice-chancellor’s pay does not reduce their own profits. They might even prefer to pay their vice-chancellor over the odds because it makes their university look more prestigious. It also makes it less likely they’ll leave, saving them the bother of appointing a new one.
That leads me on a search for regulation or systems that recognise the duality of the character – and takes me to the Netherlands, where the “Wet normering topinkomens” act of 2013 was introduced to “combat excessive remuneration and severance payments” in institutions in the (semi)public sector.
The idea was to recognise that duality of character – striking a balance between the factors in play that are also reflected in wider legislative and governance arrangements. Under the WNT, salaries and severance are both standardised and made public, and those salary ceilings are indexed annually. That cap currently stands at about 200k Euros.
The country has been carefully phasing in the cap for a decade now – and I am also struggling to find evidence that the sky has fallen in, that top talent is leaving the country, that its system isn’t being well led, or that its universities are falling behind on international comparisons. In fact, in context, I increasingly find the opposite to be true.