Disparity is a disgrace

March 1, 2002

Susan Bassnett is outraged that a v-c on a £165,000 salary would pay an academic £16, 500 a year

So Margaret Hodge is going to investigate vice-chancellors' pay awards. Not before time. With the publication of this year's league table of salaries, some boundary of acceptability appears to have been crossed, and serious questions about fat-cat pay are being asked.

Apparently, the biggest payouts go to individuals who are retiring. But retirement does not necessarily indicate success.

Apart from the extreme cases, there seems to be little or no correlation between the size, status and quality of an institution and the money paid to its chief executive. Surely our quality-control mechanisms should feature somehow in the salary scales? What makes one vice-chancellor worth so much more than another if it is not reflected in teaching and research performance?

What makes these figures so outrageous is not only the lack of transparency at how they are arrived at and justified, but the relationship between these salaries and those of other academics. While vice-chancellors in 104 institutions are earning more than £100,000, a junior lecturer going for a first job can expect to earn less than £20,000. It is not surprising to learn that salaries like this are deterring a lot of bright young people from an academic life.

Pay is a sore point in academia. The Bett report on academic pay showed all kinds of problems, not least a sizable disparity between the salaries of male and female academics, a disparity that runs right through the system.

But the biggest problem is that academic salaries have not kept pace with the salaries of comparable professions. Some 20 years ago, the discrepancies across the professions were slight, now they are great gaping gulfs.

Academic salaries are pretty comical, especially when you reflect on what your average academic has to do these days in terms of extra marking, funding proposals, quantifying research and servicing the Quality Assurance Agency.

It is no secret that many of our best academics have left Britain to go where their work is appreciated, where they are freed from bureaucracy, and where they are better paid.

Given all this, I have for several years been expecting The THES league table to provoke outrage, but the usual response has been the odd dull letter making some obscure immediately forgettable point of trivia. Given the lack of passion, I ask myself whether academics in the United Kingdom do not deserve what they have got.

Most vice-chancellors are very good at their jobs and work damned hard. They have a lot of responsibility and deserve to be paid well. But I do not accept that they need to be paid so much more than their colleagues. Most are not great charismatic leaders, some of them have poor social skills, a few do not understand finance and the odd one or two are decidedly several apples short of a fruit bowl.

Vice-chancellors are basically competent pen-pushers who have come up through the ranks and who are aided in their duties by a team of professional administrators and one or more deputies - but unlike their deputies, they also have houses, cars and a range of other allowances.

The funding of universities is contentious and likely to remain so. Concern about top-up fees remains high. One line of argument, increasingly heard, is that unless underfunded institutions start to charge higher fees, they will not be able in future to recruit quality staff, and the whole higher educational system in the UK will lose credibility.

It is a persuasive, if depressing, view. But what alternative is there if, when faced with The THES league table, the academic community just mutters sullenly to itself and barely raises a squeak of protest?

The disparity between the £165,000 paid last year to the vice-chancellor of Nottingham Trent University and the £16,500 paid to one of my best former students when she started her new academic post last October is a national disgrace. The abyss between those two salaries is what should be receiving all the publicity, not the golden handshakes given to a few elderly men.

Susan Bassnett is pro vice-chancellor of the University of Warwick.

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