Leader: Don't lose focus on the day job

Vice-chancellors have to show that their rewards are appropriate and their outside positions (and earnings) are no distraction

May 10, 2012

Money, according to the American essayist and novelist James Baldwin, is "exactly like sex: you think of nothing else if you don't have it, and think of other things if you do".

It's a nice line, but it doesn't always ring true. Are vice-chancellors - who undoubtedly have money - untroubled by material concerns, allowing them to devote every waking moment to the health of their university? Some probably are; others, one suspects, are not.

Distaste for excessive pay has been a press staple since the economic bubble burst - witness the Daily Mail's splash last week, headlined "Fat cat pay: now the rebellion", which trumpeted the decision by shareholders of Aviva to veto hefty bonuses for its top managers.

Universities, of course, are not businesses, and the sums pocketed by even the most handsomely rewarded vice-chancellors are but fractions of those enjoyed by bankers or insurance executives.

Despite this, those who defend their remuneration frequently resort to comparisons with the private sector, arguing that universities are often more complex than other organisations of similar size.

This argument does not wash with one vice-chancellor whose salary is at the more modest end of the scale.

"Universities are more complex [than private firms], but they're still not commercial entities in the way that they may have to become soon," he says, "and I don't see much evidence among the highest-paid vice-chancellors that they are doing anything very different despite the massive changes that are happening across the sector."

For this vice-chancellor, "the really big universities where the really big salaries are being paid are like banks: they won't be allowed to fail. The v-cs know that if the shit hits the fan they are going to be bailed out.

"Further down the pecking order, no one's going to come to save you, so those on a lower wage running ex-polys in urban environments with a high concentration of universities are carrying a far bigger personal risk."

This year, for the first time, our pay analysis looks at the huge array of additional roles that university leaders take on alongside their day jobs.

There are legitimate questions to ask about whether some may be biting off more than they can chew, neglecting their institution or delegating too much to deputies.

However, there are also benefits: experience from other sectors can be drawn in, talented people at the deputy vice-chancellor and pro vice-chancellor level can get new opportunities, and institutions can engage more deeply with their local communities.

The issue gets thornier when university heads are remunerated generously by private business. Do these financial top-ups allow universities to attract and keep top talent, or are they distractions that prevent leaders from devoting 100 per cent of their time to their crucial primary role?

With the hike in tuition fees this autumn, vice-chancellors will have to redouble their efforts to justify their salaries and additional roles (paid or unpaid), but not to the government, the Mail or Times Higher Education. Academics and students will want to know exactly how all this benefits the institution.

john.gill@tsleducation.com.

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