Leader: Dancing to a different tune

A generation of v-cs swayed by the rhythms of meritocracy are finding fresh reserves of restraint on pay, regardless of background

March 24, 2011

Perhaps vice-chancellors do heed the words of Vince Cable, our ballroom-dancing business secretary, after all. Mr Cable, who is big on the quickstep but not the quick buck, last year accused university leaders of lacking "self-sacrifice" and urged them to show "restraint", a request that would seem akin to asking Cherie Blair not to talk about her sex life.

Mrs Blair is still at it but the vice-chancellors are not, it seems. A survey of vice-chancellor pay across the sector by accountants Grant Thornton for Times Higher Education reveals that salaries and benefits packages dropped by an average of 1.21 per cent in 2009-10. Many took a pay cut, such as Malcolm Grant, provost of University College London.

But one, Gerald Pillay at Liverpool Hope University, which is in the midst of torrid times, received a 20.6 per cent rise in what is described as a "readjustment" to bring his salary in line with that of the heads of similar institutions. However, he has returned much of this increase to the university's scholarship fund for disadvantaged students.

This year, we have broadened our survey to collect data on the educational backgrounds of those leading our universities. Science disciplines dominate, but more than a third studied humanities and social science subjects.

When the Sutton Trust surveyed the same ground in 2007, it found that 58 per cent of UK vice-chancellors had attended grammar schools. In our wider survey (157 versus 117 heads), the figure is 39 per cent; independent school attendance is much the same at 20 per cent (35 per cent for the Russell Group).

Whatever the criticisms of grammars, and there are many, they did enable many vice-chancellors to be the first in their families to go to university. Steve Smith, leader of the University of Exeter and president of Universities UK, recalls how his parents had been told that "people like you don't go to university"; they were advised to find him a job "sweeping the floors of the local factory".

Les Ebdon, vice-chancellor of the University of Bedfordshire and head of Million+, says that grammar school transformed his life. However, his council estate roots leave him critical of the new fee regime: "If you come from a poorer background and went to a state school, (the fees will) seem out of this world."

Unsurprisingly, this experience has given him and a whole cohort of pre-Thatcher-educated vice-chancellors strong feelings about widening participation. Michael Arthur, head of the University of Leeds and chair of the Russell Group, attended a comprehensive. He says that the experience shaped him: "I have a profound belief in the importance of education as a key mechanism for improving society and making it a more equal place. That is my starting point. Everything else follows."

It will be interesting to see how the shifting proportion of state school versus private school education among the sector's leaders changes attitudes over time, but background does not necessarily dictate attitude.

Dominic Shellard, one of our "poshest" vice-chancellors (Dulwich College, St Peter's College, Oxford), heads De Montfort University, a post-1992; he is also one of our most open and approachable leaders. He made his salary public on arrival at De Montfort and last week danced with students for Comic Relief. Mr Cable would surely approve.


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