Serving the knowledge industry or the public good?

At a time in England when graduate debt, fuelled by the highest tuition fees of any public system of higher education in the world, is approaching £100 billion (US$132 billion), it is hardly surprising that the spotlight has been trained on vice-chancellors’ salaries.

Once the charge was that their salaries were rapidly increasing while the pay of all other university staff stagnated, leading to ratios between top pay and average earnings more reminiscent of big bad banks. Now the much more explosive charge is that the proceeds of tuition fees are being used not to improve the student experience but to pay vice-chancellors six-figure salaries.

The Conservative government’s Universities Minister, Jo Johnston, has been under pressure since the spring after the opposition Labour Party promised to abolish tuition fees in the election the ruling Conservatives almost lost. So he has gratefully seized the opportunity to divert attention away from the rapid erosion of public support for tuition fees by focusing on vice-chancellors’ pay.

In this manoeuvre he received unwitting support from Oxford University’s Vice-chancellor, Louise Richardson, in her recent ill-judged attack on the media and politicians, that is, Johnston, and her over-robust defence of the need to pay vice-chancellors big money – and her even more ill-judged comparison between vice-chancellors and bankers (a despised breed) and celebrity footballers (treated as exotic exceptions by all sensible people).

The result has been a casebook example of just the kind of media ‘story’ Richardson objected to so hotly, which has taken some of the political heat off Johnston.

More worryingly, English universities are now to be required to ‘justify’ to the new regulator, the Orwellian-entitled Office for Students, paying their vice-chancellors more than the prime minister, that is, over £150,000 (US$199,000) a year.

This new requirement is doubly objectionable since it is another example of how easily the state has slipped into invading the autonomy of universities without a second thought, while being almost certainly entirely ineffective at curbing high salaries for vice-chancellors.

How much is too much?

But this silly English spat raises the larger question of how much the heads of universities should be paid. The argument for high salaries is that universities are large and complex organisations, with thousands of employees and tens of thousands of students, which make exceptional demands on their leaders – true – and that these leaders must be recruited from a (restricted?) pool of global talent – less true.

In fact, the great majority of UK vice-chancellors, as with the majority of university presidents and rectors worldwide, emerge from the ranks of senior administration – and nearly all (rightly) have been professors before taking on senior management roles (often in association with core academic roles they continue to emphasise).

Comparatively few are globally mobile. Not all of these have been conspicuously successful, perhaps because of the importance of understanding the local idiosyncrasies and the national context. Richardson’s predecessor-but-one at the University of Oxford, who came from the other side of the world, spent more than five years banging his head against that university’s ancient stone walls and achieved very little.

But the first justification for high vice-chancellors’ salaries has more substance. Universities in 2017 have little in common with universities in 1967 – except, crucially, their core values. But that fundamental continuity raises serious doubts about the wisdom of paying vice-chancellors too much.

First, should universities be seen as following the private sector and opening up a gulf between executive pay and average earnings, especially as this is now the object of even more widespread public opprobrium?

Second, what does high executive pay say about how the purposes of universities have been redefined. Although this may not be the intention of remuneration committees that award and vice-chancellors who accept high salaries, the implication is that universities have become knowledge businesses to be run along corporate lines rather than public institutions serving the public good. Like it or not, that is the message that is being received – and rejected by many.

Third, do high salaries enable vice-chancellors to do what everyone accepts is an exacting job in a 21st-century university better? There are good reasons for thinking they may do the reverse. For all their corporate encrustations, universities remain low-compliance organisations – necessarily and inevitably so because their core mission is to challenge authority, in terms of established knowledge, and to push across frontiers in both teaching and research.

Deep-down the best universities are the most subversive. But, if this is accepted, a key ingredient of effectiveness on the part of university leaders is their legitimacy in the eyes of their wider university communities, staff and students. If belief in that legitimacy is shaken, as it can well be by perceptions of banker-style pay and perks, compliance will be eroded and consent will be, however silently, withdrawn.

The strongest case for restraint and modesty in vice-chancellors’ salaries, therefore, is not that high salaries have become an object of controversy, which inevitably opportunist politicians exploit. It is that high salaries can quickly become an obstacle to the effectiveness of university leaders and so deny universities the exceptional leadership, visionary and managerial, that universities so greatly deserve.

Peter Scott is emeritus professor of higher educational studies at UCL Institute of Education, London.