New rules will force Durham Vice-Chancellor to justify high salary

By Clara Gaspar

Professor Stuart Corbridge, the Vice-Chancellor of Durham University, will be asked to justify his salary under new government plans to bring “transparency and openness” to the administration of higher education institutions.

The measures, announced last week by universities minister Jo Johnson, mean that universities will be made to justify salaries over £150,000 a year and will face fines if the justification is found to be insufficient.

Professor Corbridge earns an annual £273,000, and is therefore one higher education official to be targeted by the new rules.

Mr Johnson, speaking at the annual conference of Universities UK, made clear the policy came in response to newspaper reports of many Vice-Chancellors earning over £300,000.

“Exceptional pay can only be justified by exceptional performance” – Jo Johnson, universities minister

He added that the plans also require universities to publish details of employees earning in excess of £100,000, as well as the ratio of pay for its highest-paid employee against the median salary. They must additionally provide rationalisation for greater-than-average pay rises for senior staff.

The universities minister said that debate over student debt, sparked by the increase of tuition fees to £9,000 in 2012 and exacerbated by current plans for further increases, has amplified public scrutiny of how universities spend the money that they receive.

Mr Johnson added: “Exceptional pay can only be justified by exceptional performance, which is why I will ask the new Office for Students to take action to ensure value for money and transparency for students and the taxpayer.”

The move will be welcomed by Shakira Martin, president of the National Union of Students (NUS), who recently told Palatinate: “I don’t think it’s right that Vice-Chancellors are on these high salaries when you’ve got a mother, or a student that’s a carer, who can’t get any support to continue their studies”.

To show solidarity with the action against high pay, senior officials at the Office for Students, the watchdog to whom university staff must justify their salaries, are taking lower salaries than they were initially offered.

Nicola Dandridge, the chief executive, will earn £165,000 rather than the £200,000 she was proposed, whilst chairman Sir Michael Barber will receive £54,000, rather than £60,000.


Who tops the list of well-paid Vice-Chancellors*?

  1. Dame Glynis Breakwell, University of Bath: £451,000
  2. Sir Andrew Likierman, London School of Economics: £445,000
  3. Alice Gast, Imperial College London: £430,000
  4. Sir David Eastwood, University of Birmingham: £426,000
  5. Sir Steve Smith, University of Exeter: £426,000

*For 2015-16. Excludes institutions that changed VC during the year. Source: Times Higher Education Supplement. 


Meanwhile, Vice-Chancellors have united to defend their salaries.

The head of Oxford University, Louise Richardson, has accused “tawdry politicians” and the media of deceitfully linking high salaries to the increase in tuition fees. She added that her £350,000 pay was modest in comparison to professional footballers, and cited her high salary as due to Oxford’s high operating budget of £1.4 billion.

“All the top universities actually have recruited internationally,” Ms Richardson continued, “and in the US, Vice-Chancellor salaries are about three times as high. Make no mistake, £350,000 is a very significant salary, especially when compared with university staff, but you have to see it in the broader context.”

The government proposals will be subject to discussion before they are made final, but no new legislation will need to be passed since the watchdog has already been afforded key powers to act in the students’ and taxpayers’ interest.

The Office for Students aims to give students a greater say in the running of higher education institutions and will begin operations in April 2018.

Photograph: Durham University

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