Putting Vice Chancellors’ (VC) Pay in Perspective

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2018 Higher Education Service Group Conference
21 September 2017

Conference notes that:

The Higher Education sector is perhaps the best example of a few individuals enriching themselves from public funds.

It is true that many leaders of public institutions are receiving vast incomes for their contributions, but VC pay has captured the headlines since a) students are amassing colossal debts to access Higher Education and b) the gulf between many of our members’ pay packets and those of the highest earners is enormous and increasing.

This situation, is in part, a result of the quasi-private culture creeping into Higher Education where institutions are looking to recruit “the best person for the job” and unelected business-people and self-appointed dignitaries are responsible for vast VC pay hikes at secretive remuneration committees.

The situation prompted much discussion over the summer of 2017, with architect and now critic of tuition fees, Andrew Adonis, condemning VC salaries and Jo Johnson hinting at government action over VC’s receiving in excess of the Prime Minister’s salary (of a mere £150,000!). The lack of personal restraint shown by most Vice Chancellors is clearly an embarrassment to the government.

This would not matter so much if it were not a kick in the teeth for thousands of dedicated Higher Education workers, many of whom are living in increasingly difficult financial circumstances.

However, the excessive pay of one Vice Chancellor does not, in arithmetic terms, equate to the pay increase necessary to redress the balance of successive below-inflationary rises for our members.

A typical University faces an increase of roughly £1.1 million in payroll costs for every 1% salary increase, so at the University of Brighton, for example, a 3% increase would equate to the cost of about twelve Vice Chancellors.

That’s not to say that campaigning over excessive senior pay is not worthwhile. It is necessary to expose injustice and hypocrisy, especially when highlighting our members’ demands. The Board of Universities and Colleges Employers Association (UCEA), after all, which consistently claims that inflationary rises are unaffordable, is generally made up of people “just about managing” on six-figure salaries.

It is also worthwhile looking at excessive pay of other senior staff, their privileges and perks, and calculating the collective cost of senior management teams. We should expose their supposed accountability and the fact that they are appointed, and not, like UNISON reps, elected.

As a union representing many different grades of staff, we should recognise that high or low pay is relative. With a negotiated pay scale with the top spinal point approaching £60,000 (outside London) for “highly paid professionals”, it is worth considering what top rate of salary we would call for. A cap of staff salaries of £75,000 for example at the University of Brighton would save an estimated £1.5 million and ensure that the institution employed senior staff more motivated by their professional contribution than their bank balance. Maybe a pay differential of 1:5 between highest and lowest paid would better express our aspirations.

What is fundamental though, is that a reduction of VC (and senior staff) pay to sensible amounts, would not it itself fund a pay award in 2018-19 for our members, which would cover losses against inflation over recent years. For this, a significant increase in funding to universities is required, which should not come from an increase in tuition fees.

We have to demand proper funding for universities and those working in them alongside democratic accountability for those in charge.

Conference therefore calls of the Service Group Executive to:

1)Continue to campaign against excessive pay of senior employees, relating their calls for “pay restraint” for us, to their collective lack of self-control;

2)Campaign for those running Higher Education institutions and responsible for senior pay to be democratically elected and accountable;

3)Consider calling for maximum salary for all Higher Education employees as a way of releasing funds into the sector and making senior employees more in touch with issues faced by our members;

4)Campaign for a general, central government-funded increase in resources for Higher Education, combined with the abolition of tuition fees, as agreed UNISON policy;

5)Report back to future Higher Education Conferences on progress made.