A trio of criticisms regarding vice-chancellors’ pay

By Edward Keeling

I like inequality. It is the key to an enterprising and successful society. Yet, it can often be pernicious, as it is in the case of vice-chancellors’ salaries.

Inequality through high pay is justified when an individual adds something nobody else to an organisation, and is thus compensated accordingly. So, if an individual becomes CEO of a company with a revenue of £100 million and they alone have the capacity to increase the revenues by 5%, then to pay them £2 million is probably still a bargain for the firm. I would be interested to know what exactly vice-chancellors contribute to universities. This is not to say I don’t know what they do, but to ask what they do which no one else can to merit the money they earn? I would speculate that graduates from many universities have the skills and potential to do what some vice-chancellors do, and would do it for a lot less money, or at least create some healthy competition.

Professor Louise Richardson, head of Oxford University, recently claimed vice-chancellors, when compared with footballers, are low-paid. Here she seems to have missed the point. Football is possibly one of the most meritocratic jobs in the world. People compete against others from all around the world. If you are not good enough, you do not play, subsequently you do not move teams and earn money. Vice-chancellors are quite simply not in a similar state of competition. Footballers can come from highly disadvantaged backgrounds whilst a quick look at a selection of vice-chancellors’ backgrounds reveals that this is, more often than not, not the case.

Finally, it is frustrating when these individuals abuse their authority. For example, the UK’s highest paid vice-chancellor, Professor Dame Glynis Breakwell, allegedly claimed £8,224 (essentially one year of a student’s tuition) in expenses on housekeeping and laundry. Since she is allowed to do so, there is nothing stopping her. Hey, she is enjoying the perks of her position. Yet, this is not the same as, say, a banker putting expenses on the company. The company employs people and pays them. So does a university, true. However, in the case of this vice-chancellor’s expenses, the money comes, in part, from tuition fees. The money comes from students who are putting themselves into debt. A vice-chancellor is meant to be a custodian of education. How, then, is she justifying this responsibility with regards to her expenses?

Perhaps she doesn’t, and perhaps there is a perfectly clear explanation. I am not fundamentally opposed to a high wage, or even someone making the most of their expenses. However, as I have outlined above: in the case of vice-chancellors, the financial perks of their work are nothing short of unjust. And so, it would be satisfying to get an explanation in response to my three criticisms of the current situation.

Photograph: TheOnlyMoxey via Flickr and Creative Commons

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