Easy money? That's rich

Topping the salary table is not all it's made out to be, says Malcolm Gillies

April 22, 2010

Each Easter my partner and I head off to Vienna for a few days' break. Amid rounds of Sachertorte, apfelstrudel and Wiener schnitzel, there is a constant to these visits: Wagner's last opera, Parsifal.

What is Parsifal about? Well, I don't really know ... even though I can now play through whole slabs of its music in my mind. But I hope that before I die I shall unravel more of its enigma. It seems to be about the meaning of human existence.

Now, life is full of surprises. As I prepared for this annual pilgrimage to - what is for me - the very citadel of world opera, I was surprised to find myself featured in Times Higher Education's table of vice-chancellorial salaries ("It was fun while it lasted", 1 April).

Six hundred and fifty-one thousand pounds does seem a lot of remuneration for one person to chalk up in one year. Well, perhaps not by banking standards, where on a good day you could make that sum by lunchtime. But for a job in a public university, and coming in at over three times the prime minister's salary, it is, as this magazine's leading article suggested, "eye-watering".

When vice-chancellor of City University London, I had hoped that we might be first in some league table or other (preferably for educational or research excellence), but this retrospective poll position was not exactly what I had in mind. It set a new high-tide mark for a sector in increasing financial difficulty.

Of course, as THE's table makes clear, 2008-09 was the year in which you came top of the salary pops by entering into an exit package for premature "loss of office", rather than by gaining a hefty increase for exceeding performance targets, or picking up an extra garland or two on the hero's final lap of victory before (a well-remunerated) retirement.

All three packages at the top of this latest salary table (City, the University of East London and the University of East Anglia) contain these extra "benefits", in each case more than a quarter of a million pounds, for loss of office. By wrapping these packages up within corporate-style compromise agreements, with their obligations of confidentiality, the mystery - the enigma - only intensifies.

The institutions themselves are left wondering: Why did the vice-chancellor go? What did he do? How have the interests of students or staff been served by the departure? In fact, what even was paid, against the making of "provisions" or other accounting treatments? (As a statement from City University has disclosed a mitigation clause for the university's (financial) "loss" at my departure, you can well surmise that my remuneration was much more dry-eyed than the table would lead you to believe.)

Departing vice-chancellors can also be left wondering: What should I have done differently? Was I just the "wrong" person for this particular job? Even, what do, or don't, I know?

Both employer and former employee venture little comment, because to suggest anything that may be seen to lower the reputation of either party could breach the compromise agreement. Yet it is public funds, or - now increasingly - the tuition fees paid by our students, that go to pay for most of these "eye-watering" amounts.

I think we can now see that 2008-09 was a time of unprecedented turbulence at the top of the sector. Recession struck and world economies teetered before an apparent abyss. Institutional budgets came under heightened pressure, and priorities needed urgently to be reassessed. After the years of relative plenty - benign government attitudes to funding, rapidly growing student contributions and staff salaries - the reality of Britain's economic plight struck with a bang.

Vice-chancellors, senior managements and boards of governors clearly came under more scrutiny, and their values were more directly tested. An unprecedented number of British vice-chancellors walked during these months, and the average length of presidential service is now approaching North American standards of brevity.

Despite the still-worsening state of public finances, I would like to think that a greater stability is now being re-established. Expectations have been adjusted. More pragmatic plans are being forged. We are all getting better prepared - I hope - for the longer haul of grim times, even if there are still agonies to come.

Let me assure you of one thing, in denial of the headline that introduced the salary table: it wasn't fun! Although I did appear just to stroll down to the neighbouring university, London Metropolitan, and set up shop there, these separations have the trauma level of a real-life divorce.

Whatever the reason, whatever the settlement, you have deep sadness for the hopes that were left behind, the good people who have been let down, the farewells that could not be said. When you "sign and walk" - which seems to be the new expected behaviour - you do take your life and that of your loved ones into your own hands. University staff gaining redundancy or dismissal notices during these times can well tell you of that pain.

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