Leader: Like pay, the stakes are rising

The importance of balancing reward and responsibility is highlighted by the sums paid out when things go wrong at the top

April 1, 2010

It's that time of year when, like the first buds of spring, all those important questions burst forth: should the clocks go forward, how many Cadbury Creme Eggs can I eat, and are the leaders of our higher education institutions paid too much?

In our cover story, Universities UK defends the salaries of vice-chancellors with the familiar argument that they are equivalent to those in the public and private sector for organisations of a similar size, whereas the Russell Group takes the line that a world-class organisation needs a world-class head, who will demand a world-class salary, because leadership is crucial to a university's success.

This year, however, the story is less about how much is being paid when things go right than it is about how much is shelled out when things go wrong. At the top of our table is City University London, where Malcolm Gillies stepped down after falling out with his governing body, followed by the University of East London, where Martin Everett resigned following complaints from the governing body. Two packages where the cost of office, excluding pension, for the year cost the institutions concerned an eye-watering £651,000 and £537,000, respectively.

At City, Professor Gillies clashed with his lay governors over the council's composition. He complained about a lack of skills and knowledge of education among board members. Ironically, he moved to another institution troubled by governance issues, London Metropolitan University, whose cost of office details would have proved fascinating had they been made available for inclusion in our survey.

At UEL, Professor Everett left after an investigation by the governing board into complaints that he had not shown sufficient leadership. A tricky accusation: Napoleon and Hitler were effective leaders, but you wouldn't want either in charge of your institution. Among other allegations was that he was too academically minded - how's that for an indicator of the state of affairs at universities?

Thanks in no small part to governing bodies, last year was a record one for executive departures. The average term of office for a vice-chancellor - a post once thought far more secure than parallel private-sector positions - is now under five years. And not surprisingly, the Higher Education Funding Council for England's "accountable officer" wheeze, its sledgehammer-to-crack-the-London Met nut approach to ousting leaders when problems buffet their institutions, has met with resistance. The 1994 Group correctly notes that a right of rejection by Hefce has serious implications for university autonomy.

The importance of autonomy and accountability were emphasised in the closing speech at the weekend's Education Without Borders European Forum at University College London, by Malcolm Grant, provost of UCL and holder of the sixth-largest executive package in our survey. Without autonomy, he said, someone else can always be blamed; but with it, he noted, come the burdens of accountability.

Whatever the governance issues, it is the vice-chancellor who is ultimately accountable. These are difficult times for universities, with huge challenges ahead. How their leaders deal with them will be crucial. The average salary for the head of a British institution works out at £207,318. The coming years will show just how many of them are worth it.

ann.mroz@tsleducation.com.

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