Some of the UK’s most senior vice-chancellors have defended their high salaries after MPs described their pay as “over-inflated” and “immoral”.
Appearing before the House of Commons Education Committee on 21 February, five vice-chancellors faced tough questioning from MPs over their pay and how it was set.
In one exchange, Michelle Donelan, Conservative MP for Chippenham, branded the current remuneration of vice-chancellors “over-inflated” as they were “earning more than the prime minister” and added the situation was “immoral” given the level of student debt on graduation. Among the research-intensive Russell Group universities, vice-chancellors’ pay averages £332,000 in salary and benefits, according to Times Higher Education analysis.
However, Louise Richardson, vice-chancellor of the University of Oxford, told MPs that the comparison with Theresa May’s salary of about £150,000 was not fair because “the prime minister’s salary is paid entirely by taxpayers”.
At Oxford, only about 9 per cent of annual income came from taxpayers, said Professor Richardson, whose salary and benefits totalled £360,000 in 2016-17, or £430,000 if pension contributions are included. That proportion rose to less than 20 per cent if research funding was included, according to Professor Richardson, who said that this was similar to the proportion received by some private US universities.
“There is a very real difference,” said Professor Richardson on the comparison with the prime minister’s salary.
Chris Husbands, vice-chancellor of Sheffield Hallam University, was asked how he would explain his pay – £258,000, including benefits, in 2016-17 – to a “nurse coming off a 12-hour shift”. Professor Husbands replied that his organisation had a turnover of about £270 million a year, contributed £600 million to the Sheffield economy and that he was responsible for 31,000 students and 5,000 staff.
Peter Horrocks, vice-chancellor of the Open University, said he had asked his governors to review his overall salary and benefits, which stood at £360,000 in 2016-17. He had also asked for the vice-chancellor’s official residence to be sold, but his salary reflected the challenges of the role which now included the “largest redundancy restructuring programme in UK [university] history”.
Robert Halfon, the committee chair, rejected claims by Professor Richardson that university heads were operating in a “global marketplace” for talent, saying that “universities receive huge public subsidies” and that, “given eight years of austerity” in other sectors, “there was a need for public sector restraint” in higher education.
“I cannot believe we could not find brilliant people to run universities on salaries that the prime minister gets…or around £200,000,” added Mr Halfon.
MPs also quizzed the vice-chancellors about how their pay was set. Mr Halfon said it was “astonishing” that nine out of 10 vice-chancellors sat on remuneration committees that set their pay or were allowed to stay in the room during discussions, according to research by the University and College Union.
However, Dame Janet Beer, vice-chancellor of the University of Liverpool and president of Universities UK, pushed back on claims that vice-chancellors were involved in setting their own pay.
“I have been a vice-chancellor of two universities – as has Louise [Richardson] – and I have never been present for the discussions of my salary,” said Dame Janet, whose salary and benefits totalled £363,000 in 2016-17.
“I have been a member of remuneration committees in order to give a view on senior staff salaries. When those discussions come to an end I leave the room,” said Dame Janet, who added this was, according to other vice-chancellors, “pretty much everybody’s experience”.