Individual rewards for collective success

January 30, 2014

Justifying the 39 per cent increase in the total pay package of Sir Keith Burnett, the University of Sheffield’s vice-chancellor, pro chancellor Tony Pedder informs us that “under Sir Keith’s leadership” the university has enjoyed a “period of real success – including outstanding student satisfaction, sustained increases in research funding, league table success…and being awarded the title of University of the Year” in 2011 (“£105,000 rise for head as staff denied living wage”, News, 23 January).

As a retired university academic (1975-2011), I assume that the vice-chancellor does not teach undergraduates and postgraduates, nor prepare the research proposals that lead to increased funding.

Sheffield’s performance is the result of a collective effort. Yet the pay of academics, the majority of administrative and library staff and cleaners and other support staff is comfortably exceeded by the vice-chancellor’s remuneration package. Indeed, his increase will be more than the annual pay of the majority of them. Sir Keith’s pay package of £374,000 is almost eight times that of a lecturer at the top of the scale and 25 times that of the living wage, a sum that students and academics have argued repeatedly that all staff should at least receive. But the call has been ignored.

At best, any vice-chancellor’s contribution to an institution’s success is only likely to be that he or she enabled staff through their collective effort to make it possible. Remuneration committees exaggerate the magnitude and contribution of the leadership qualities of their vice-chancellor.

This myth is sustained by practice in the private sector, where executive pay sets a benchmark for other occupations such as public sector managers. Frequently, the narrative justifying obscene salaries relies on arguments improbably emphasising the indispensable leadership qualities of the chief executive.

The success of the University of Sheffield has been achieved by the contribution of all staff. The vice-chancellor’s contribution should not be reflected in a salary of £374,000 while most of the staff earn substantially less.

Michael Somerton


The current pay dispute (“Universities threaten to dock day’s pay over strike”,, 21 January) is exposing the disconnect between university senior managements and the staff who work in the institutions they run.

The hypocrisy of vice-chancellors and principals continuing to award themselves average pay rises of 8 per cent (some much higher) while they refuse to move beyond the 1 per cent offer to all staff in the current pay negotiations, or even to pay a living wage to the lowest paid in many cases, demonstrates the extent to which managements are out of touch with the realities of life for working people across the UK in 2014.

This cynicism has been underlined once more by the latest aggressive move by a number of universities: the threat to deduct a whole day’s pay for just two hours of strike action. What this unlawful tactic shows, if further demonstration were necessary, is that vice-chancellors increasingly see themselves in the roles of chief executives rather than academic leaders and act in the most self-serving traditions that we have come to associate with bankers and cosseted executive board members.

That pay differentials between the best-paid and the worst-paid are at their widest ever, that universities’ expenditure on pay as a proportion of total income is at its lowest ever and that many employers are engaging in the most intimidatory and bullying behaviour in a legal dispute demonstrates that our individual and collective managements are dangerously unaccountable.

We the undersigned members of the University and College Union call on Times Higher Education readers and staff and students in universities to express your concerns to local vice-chancellors and principals and to support the unions’ strike action and campaign for a decent pay offer.

Carlo Morelli, University of Dundee
Adrian Budd, London South Bank University
Mark O’Brien, University of Liverpool
Kathryn Mackay, University of Stirling
Mark Campbell, London Metropolitan University
Paul Blackledge, Leeds Metropolitan University
Jo McNeill, University of Liverpool
Rick Saull, Queen Mary University of London
Veronica Killen, Northumbria University
Marion Hersh, University of Glasgow
Davidson Chademana, University of Dundee
Graham Kirkwood, Queen Mary University of London
Carles Ibanez, Edinburgh Napier University
Mike McConnell, University of Aberdeen
Sean Wallis, University College London
Malcolm Povey, University of Leeds
Gerry Mooney, The Open University


The 23 January issue of Times Higher Education printed two articles about pay in higher education. One was about the two-hour strikes called by the University and College Union, which included the following: “A spokesman for the Universities and Colleges Employers’ Association condemned the action, saying ‘UCU’s demands for higher pay increases are neither affordable nor sustainable’ ”.

The other concerned the pay rise for one vice-chancellor: “According to published accounts, the pay package of Sir Keith Burnett, vice-chancellor of the University of Sheffield, rose to £374,000 last year, up from £269,000 in 2011‑12, an increase of 39 per cent.”

I take it this is both affordable and sustainable. If it’s good enough for him, it’s good enough for the rest of us.

Charlie Owen

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Reader's comments (1)

I agree with Michael, Charlie, and Carlo et al. The answer lies in the faulty decision-making process. I'm not a fan of the current system of university governance, which in its current form originates in the post-1982 shakeup mandated by the Jarratt Report. This places far too much power in the hands of self-perpetuating groups of businessmen and the like, with obviously very little understanding of life at salaries of less than £150k. Setting VC remuneration and then by a mathematical process the remuneration of Secretaries, etc , is a game of leapfrog. Salaries always go up by far more than those of the people who actually do the work. My answer to this latest, frankly appalling, news is that we should submit remuneration proposals to a vote of all staff. Of course if huge rises can be defended objectively, the vote will be won. If not, at least the chap(ess)s on the governing body will be taught a lesson in reality. Dennis Farrington

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