The value in our universities cannot be found in vice-chancellor salaries

As Dame Glynis Breakwell announces her resignation from Bath, James Treadwell urges scholars to celebrate the real value in our universities

November 29, 2017
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The ongoing storm over vice-chancellor pay levels has claimed its first victim. Yesterday, Dame Glynis Breakwell announced that she is stepping down from her position as vice-chancellor of the University of Bath. I have tweeted several times criticising high pay, and perhaps this resignation should be celebrated, but the truth of the matter is that it changes nothing.

It is not just about Dame Glynis – although in my tweets I have been guilty of seeing the problem as an individual failing rather than a systematic one. As we have seen universities rise as businesses, they have come to mimic the very thing that the worst businesses do: they are shrouded in secrecy, beholden to the idea that they are run by, but not for, individuals, rather than as academic communities with a higher purpose.

They have become about the pursuit of profit and the bottom line.

Perhaps this started with fees. Or perhaps in the 1980s, when Margaret Thatcher said: “They are casting their problems at society. And, you know, there's no such thing as society. There are individual men and women and there are families. And no government can do anything except through people, and people must look after themselves first. It is our duty to look after ourselves and then, also, to look after our neighbours.”

Some vice-chancellors are way too busy looking after themselves, that is certain. However, there are also many good people in executive positions who probably dislike the current situation as much as many of their staff do.  

I have read some of Dame Glynis’s work (Facing Physical Violence) and, away from the pay, she has at least seemed to keep a foot in the academic world. It was a good thing that she remained an academic while in charge of an academic institution. 

Perhaps that is the reason she is keen to take her sabbatical? We all know how hard it can be to free yourself to do research and writing in universities today. 

Being an academic, however, does not automatically make you a good manager, figurehead or leader. Being a good, reasonable person perhaps does, and I don’t know many good, reasonable people who could be all that comfortable receiving a huge sum of money that is clearly in excess of what other hard-working staff who surround you receive.  

However – as much as this troubles me – maybe Thatcher had a point. It is very easy to despair of the “neoliberal university”, but let’s take that apart a bit. The neoliberal university happens, in part, because people are complicit in it, although they do not like to acknowledge it.

The message from on high should communicate an aspiration to create critical thinkers who think about improving society, as well as profit. That environment is one that we as academics – at all levels – can aspire to create (or else we can convince ourselves of our own individual reasons for opting out, and selfishly seeking to look after number one). 

Certainly, I wonder whether students are always being set a good example by all those who work at universities. Perhaps, rather than tweeting in anger about pay levels, I should have sent a tweet expressing my admiration for those senior university executives who have shown pay restraint, and kept those good social values alive. I know that there are some. I expect that they are in the majority, actually, because I think that most people who become academics and university managers don’t do so to make lots of money – they do so because in universities they find something that they love and care about. 

Take me as an example. I went to a comprehensive school and found my way into a post-92. I now have four degrees. It changed my life – not because I am cleverer than other people; or not simply through meritocracy. It was a combination of hard work (mine and others – I still owe a big debt to two professors in particular) and luck. I did not pay fees, and as a professor I now earn far more than I ever thought I would, but that comes with a social responsibility. 

Data tool: find out the vice-chancellor to staff pay ratios at your university (UK)

I have a job that is not dangerous or traumatic (unlike hundreds of public sector workers). Police and prison officers work in violent and sometimes dangerous conditions. Fire service personnel run unflinchingly into horrendous infernos to try to save lives. Paramedics and nurses face adversity and trauma daily, and yet none of them earns even a tenth of what some of our highest paid university executives and leaders do. 

The list could go on, but the real message is that there is a point at which high pay becomes morally indefensible, and in some parts of university leadership that point was reached – and passed – long ago.     

Those who work in universities do jobs that enrich lives and are not all about the money. And we are really lucky in that respect. It is something that we should celebrate more. 

There is a quote often attributed to the former president of Harvard University, Derek Bok: “If you think education is expensive, try ignorance.” This seems a good mantra for today’s world. People should be paid fairly, but if a receptionist works 40 hours a week for £17,000 and does it well, I find it hard to see how anyone can contribute value to a university that is some 27 times that. 

If I am wrong, there would be a wealth of evidence to support the current high pay structures. Yet when you begin to look, there simply isn’t, which is why those taking such amounts are simply reduced to saying “it’s because I’m worth it”.  Yet just because you say you are worth the money does not make it so. 

Perhaps this whole episode might create an important debate about fairness in the social system. But it would be wrong to think that a change at the top of one institution solves the problems that we see in terms of how we value universities, and bring their contribution to building better societies back to the fore.

James Treadwell is a professor in criminology at Staffordshire University.

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Reader's comments (3)

I think the problem is far greater than unfairly high pay for VCs "just doing the business". I wonder what a "View from the boys" would look like from inside the boards of governors who decide bottom-line chasing, academic-sweating, disrespectful and anti-academic robotic tick box favouring, procedural bad-business claptrap nonsense is the sort of thing everyone should be tied up with in the "modern University" and so appoint senior managers to implement it.
I maintain that in the fast changing HE environment, HEI's need to consider that there is a business organisation to run alongside the maintenance of free and liberal thinking, debate, research and learning. Perhaps developing a COO role working alongside the academic VC could separate out the two parts leading to greater integrity and faster development of world changing institutions.
Well said, James. Here's something I wrote in 2014 "There are various reasons why someone would demand more than £142K. Maybe a few of them do have an expensive drug habit or a penchant for yachts. It's more likely, though, that their sense of self-worth is tied up with how much they are paid, and their competitive nature means they need to demonstrate that they are better than their contemporaries. They'd be quite happy with £142K if everyone else earned £130K, but once they hear of someone else earning £150K, the iron enters into the soul. Or, like Scrooge, they may get satisfaction from seeing the money building up, even though they don't actually need it. The point is that none of these characteristics is an attractive personality trait, and I would question whether we should regard them as essential criteria when selecting a vice chancellor. "

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