In a week when vice-chancellors should have been celebrating the continuing success of our universities in the Times Higher Education World University Rankings, they have had their backs to the wall yet again defending their own pay and perks.
Whatever the undoubted merits of our university leaders – and I have great respect for many – as a group they seem to lack both self-awareness and common sense. Talking up your Bentley or yacht, or comparing yourself to a footballer and banker – as University of Oxford vice-chancellor Louise Richardson did at the THE World Academic Summit this week – will not make the hostile headlines go away.
Nor will telling the public, who have seen the redacted remuneration committee minutes published by the University and College Union, that the Committee of University Chairs has it all in hand serve to reassure, because vice-chancellor pay has grown so alarmingly on their watch. A summer in the spotlight means the public know that vice-chancellors' pay shot up during the austerity years, while staff pay was held down, and they know that the majority of v-cs can sit on the committee that sets their pay.
The public, students and staff have had enough so, while I applaud those leaders who have decided to fight back on behalf of the sector after the dreadful summer, vice-chancellors do have to accept that, in a country with some of the highest tuition fees in the developed world, their salaries are a matter of public interest.
What I found most interesting about this spectacle was what Richardson – leader of the best university in the world, according to the Times Higher Education rankings – said this week after comparing vice-chancellors to bankers and footballers in a defence of senior pay: “My own salary is £350,000. That’s a very high salary compared to our academics, who I think are, junior academics especially, very lowly paid.”
This is something that many v-cs have said in private, but it is positive to see such a senior academic leader at last acknowledging that the undoubted success of UK universities has been built on the backs of the staff whose pay has fallen in real terms by 15 per cent since 2010.
Pay is one thing, but fair treatment is another. I doubt that many of the 150,000 casualised staff who work in our sector will shed many tears for those v-cs who find the scrutiny of their pay and perks distasteful.
Indeed, what makes the usually young, always passionately committed, hourly paid teachers and contract researchers I talk to even angrier than their exploitative treatment by universities is that whenever the issue of casual contracts is aired, their existence is denied, swept under the carpet or explained away as a perk.
Such practices have led to a crisis in UK higher education, a public edifice where our “upstairs” leaders operate in an international market, while “downstairs” young academics compete for jobs that are casual in every aspect except the workload and commitment required, and PhD students teach undergraduates on the cheap with little training and no status.
These people are the future of our profession, yet the sector treats them as if they are expendable – using employment models one might expect to find in a Sports Direct warehouse, but not a university. Complaining about this is one thing, and we have been highlighting these issues for years, but acting to change things is another.
Following my recent re-election as general secretary and the extended debate it entailed within the union about how we should respond to this crisis, I am proud that UCU is going to take a historic step in how it supports that next generation of struggling young academics.
From 1 October we will be offering free membership to the thousands of PhD students who also teach. We are also going to boost our professional development service – already used by 10,000 higher education staff a year – to fill the gaps left by universities that too often fail to properly train their young staff for the challenges ahead.
This move is expensive, but when I hear from senior academics that their biggest worry is the treatment of the young, I have no doubt that it will be supported by our existing members as the least that we can do to safeguard the future of our profession.
Now, a challenge for the vice-chancellors whose own pay and conditions have made such negative headlines. It’s time to move on from defending your own pay and conditions and instead look at what you can do to improve those of the people who create the output that wins the awards – and especially those at the bottom – the young, the casualised, the next generation.
I welcome speeches like that of Richardson that acknowledge the problem, but the more important step for vice-chancellors is to remember that they have the power to do something about it.
Sally Hunt is general secretary of the University and College Union.