Leader: Leadership comes at a premium

March 19, 2009

Vice-chancellors' salaries have risen, but so have the demands of the job they do and the economic challenges they face

For once, academics can start to feel justly rewarded. The new pay framework has seen average salaries increase by 5.7 per cent from 2006-07, to £43,486 a year, compared with a national average for other UK workers of 4 per cent. Academics are now better remunerated than some of their professional counterparts, and rightly so; a result for which unions and management should take much-deserved credit.

For the vast majority, their job is secure and there is a final-salary pension to greet them when retirement beckons. But with silver linings come clouds. We are in the worst recession in living memory for most, and the world could well be stumbling into a new financial paradigm. "Stability and sustainability of institutions remain of paramount importance during this time of economic uncertainty," warns Jocelyn Prudence, chief executive of the Universities and Colleges Employers Association and a woman aptly named for our straitened times.

Such a tempestuous situation puts the question of how much the head of an institution is worth into an interesting context. Vice-chancellors are now on an average salary of £193,970. Of course, this masks all sorts of astonishing individual rewards, not least the 89.9 per cent rise for Sir Colin Campbell, the former vice-chancellor of the University of Nottingham, whose final salary of £585,000 was enhanced with pension and other extra payments for early retirement.

Not surprisingly, the University and College Union sees the average increase of 9 per cent that vice-chancellors have received over the previous year as ill deserved and "distasteful" in the current climate. But let us consider the role of the leaders of today's institutions.

The vice-chancellor's job has changed immeasurably in recent years. Whereas he - and it is still, sad to say, a male-dominated sector at the top - used to preside over teaching and research alone, he now also has to contend with technology transfer and spin-offs, fundraising, working with industry and even managing campuses abroad. Many UK institutions are world leaders that command an army of internationally excellent staff, and it is on the shoulders of their leaders that the expectation of alleviating many of the nation's economic woes also rests. To recruit and retain people who can capably administer such huge enterprises, salaries must be competitive not only nationally, but globally.

Vice-chancellors come in for heavy criticism from Vernon Bogdanor in this issue, but these are the people who must steer universities through the downturn and lead us out the other side. Tough decisions will have to be made, as is already happening after the research assessment exercise. Some have acted speedily, such as Sir Howard Newby, who is to close three departments and is considering the future of five others at the University of Liverpool.

We depend on these people to understand the challenges ahead and tackle them head on. As far as J.K. Galbraith was concerned, "all of the great leaders have had one characteristic in common: it was the willingness to confront unequivocally the major anxiety of their people in their time. This, and not much else, is the essence of leadership."

It is that willingness that is demanded of vice-chancellors in these anxious times: the shape of the future higher education landscape is in their hands. A sector of such vital importance to the UK's future deserves the very best leadership.

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