Vice-chancellors’ pay row: a whiff of hypocrisy and sexism?

Pam Tatlow looks at the ‘heroes’ and ‘villains’ of the v-c salary row, and finds some unfortunate trends

December 5, 2017
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In the ongoing furore over vice-chancellor pay, I wonder if there is a whiff of misogyny and hypocrisy in the air. Is this another occasion when the role of women in the workplace is subject to different treatment and language?

While a letter from female academics supportive of Dame Glynis Breakwell’s leadership of the University of Bath has been countered by other female members of staff, questions do need to be asked about whether the personalised nature of the campaign against vice-chancellors (promoted by those outside the university system) is tainted by a large dose of hypocrisy.

Is it coincidental, for example, that the female vice-chancellors of Oxford (who dared to defend her pay) and Manchester have been mentioned in media dispatches, but that the comments of the male principal and vice-chancellor of the University of Glasgow (who roundly rejected the argument that vice-chancellors’ pay should be cut) have gone relatively unchallenged?

We should look too at Andrew Adonis; the (unelected) peer who has had so much to say about all this (and whose current target, it should be said, is the male vice-chancellor of Southampton).

He was referred to by the late, great educationalist Ted Wragg alternatively as “Tony Zoffis” (think of the prime minister at the time tuition fees were first introduced) and ABA (the middle initial bore no relationship to any middle name). Unsurprisingly, after Dame Glynis announced her departure, Lord Adonis lost little time in tabling a written question in the House of Lords asking whether ministers “plan to investigate the decision-making process at the University of Bath which led to an ‘exit package’ being paid to the vice-chancellor”.

Clearly, the niceties of contracts and employment law, and the views of at least some of the institution’s female academics, have escaped the noble lord.

Way back when the political sketches of Bremner, Bird and Fortune were a TV “must-watch”, one notable sketch featured Ruth Kelly, the then secretary of state for education, desperately trying to retrieve her policy from the clutches of her lordly parliamentary under-secretary of state: the one and only ABA. Later, Estelle Morris (a qualified teacher and probably one of the most knowledgeable secretaries of state for education) resigned while ABA’s ministerial career continued.

After standing down as an MP and being elevated to the House of Lords, Morris went on record saying “…I am not sure how much he is grounded in a lot of delivery”. 

Delivery in a market environment is, of course, bread and butter to vice-chancellors and many of those appointed as university governors. It is an obvious outcome of the market and the privatisation agenda first promoted by Tony Zoffis himself.

This market approach in higher education has been significantly expanded by the current government to the extent that ministers don’t seem to mind if universities fail – a sentiment discussed in the Downing Street policy unit in 2003, but which has only recently been resurrected as an accepted potential consequence of government policy.

Is it any surprise then that university boards (like those of NHS Foundation Trusts) have been encouraged and required to value the experience of executives from the private sector? 

No one can claim with any credibility that the role of a vice-chancellor has become any easier. Whatever the issues with their salaries, linking their pay to tuition fees or the prime minister’s salary is spurious. Talk to, or spend time with, vice-chancellors and it is evident that many work exceptionally long hours, and manage highly complex organisations as well as endless government amendments to funding and other policy regimes (ranging from immigration to teacher education).

They sit on a plethora of bodies in their localities, and act as ambassadors for the UK and their universities overseas, delivering massive benefit in terms of export earnings and soft power. Governing bodies see all of this and more and are free to assess and make decisions about performance and remuneration.

As journalist and broadcaster Andrew Neil aptly tweeted, Lord Adonis only has to turn up at the House of Lords to get paid.



Unlike in some countries, there is no state control of UK university leaders’ salaries. Nor does the state approve the appointment of vice-chancellors. This is just as it should be. If ministers truly believe in the autonomy of the sector, they should resist the temptation of jumping on the bandwagon of self-appointed guardians of the public purse. 

Of course, students and staff have every right to make their views known about levels of remuneration and terms and conditions in the sector. These are reflective of the wider issues of pay, flexibility of contracts and outsourcing that are now commonplace in organisations throughout the UK. This should be part of the bigger conversation about the future of work and employment that goes way beyond universities.

However, this is different from the highly personalised campaign that has been pursued by those who seem happy to ignore the much larger remuneration packages and share options of the CEOs of some higher education private providers that have been awarded university title by the government. They have been similarly silent about the remuneration packages handed out to heads of Academy Trusts (created and promoted by Tony Zoffis) and the pay of principals of further education colleges, which is often higher than the pay received by many vice-chancellors. 

Just as interesting in all this is the opacity of the remuneration of peers and potential regulators who are, or have recently been, company directors and who are also on the public payroll. For example, for three days a week, the chair of the National Infrastructure Commission (one Andrew Adonis) receives an annual remuneration package of £85,200, plus a further £20,000 a year pension contribution.

Appointed for five years and funded by taxpayers, there is no glimmer of a suggestion that the incumbent will be subject to any performance review. Some of us women might surmise that this really is another of those jobs for the boys.

Pam Tatlow is chief executive of MillionPlus.

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Reader's comments (3)

Let Pam Tatlow tackle the compulsory redundancies, closures of departments and zero hours contracts before she asserts that attacks on Vice Chancellors and their salaries are motivated by misogyny. Surely it is not because they are women that leaders of universities refuse to condemn the sacking of staff, the closing of departments and the imposition of zero hours contracts. It is hard not to believe that UK universities have leaders devoid of morality and integrity, and driven only by greed and the bullying of the senior management they have hired. I challenge Pam Tatlow to address those issues, instead of hiding behind shrill cries of misogyny.
Pam Tatlow is right to point to the wider context of marketisation, and it is reasonable for her to remind people of Lord Adonis’ role in creating that context. Where she is wrong is in her suggestion that this is about Lord Adonis or motivated by misogyny. The explosion of anger at Bath has been a long time in the making, and is born out of frustration at growing pay inequality, secrecy in the management of the university and arrogance in the face of any criticism. Glynis Breakwell’s mistake at Bath was to vote against legitimate scrutiny of the way in which decisions about her pay have been made, and to encourage those she manages to vote likewise. I know this because I put the motion that she and her colleagues voted down. The ensuing HEFCE enquiry discovered a much wider set of problems with governance at Bath University, problems that many staff had tried to talk to her and the governors about for several years. The fact that Bath’s Vice Chancellor is a woman is irrelevant, but there is some irony in Pam Tatlow’s intervention as it may well have the effect of diverting attention from the problems of governance that are now endemic to the sector.
The idea that the UK press is misogynistic is nothing new - misogyny was not leveled at the complainants at Bath but at the press. From the antipodes, there did seem a case to answer. The hypocrisy of politicians (anywhere) is a given. The problem is they point to their periodic elections as their performance assessment - it isn't. What needs to be set in motion are standards not only for attendance but also for debate - including evidence and veracity and civility - for policy - including evidence, free public availability and options considered. Frankly none of us have any idea whether we get value for money out of politicians and it is about time it changed, perhaps starting with Lord ABA.

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