They're worth it, they say

June 3, 2010

Considering Vince Cable's attack on the salaries of vice-chancellors ("Cable 'taken aback' by recent v-c pay rises", www.times highereducation.co.uk, May), the prescience of Malcolm McVicar, vice-chancellor of the University of Central Lancashire, may help to explain his salary, for in March he predicted with lamentation the arrival of the season for having a go at vice-chancellors' pay.

On the other hand, perhaps anyone could have predicted this response by a new secretary of state, given that 80 vice-chancellors earn more than the Prime Minister and 19 earn more than £300,000.

McVicar made the equally predictable defence that the market for senior university executives is international. But the evidence is against that claim. Of those 19 highest earners, only three were recruited from outside the UK. The comparison made with the private sector does not stack up.

Universities are simply not subject to the constraints and indicators - shareholders, share price, threat of takeover, market share and so forth - that provide some kind of check, however inadequate, on rewards for mediocrity in the business world. The proper comparison for universities is with other parts of the public sector. When we consider that the median pay among the 36 permanent secretaries is £163,200, but the median pay of 154 vice-chancellors is £236,000, the latter look to be doing excessively well.

Nicola Dandridge, the chief executive of Universities UK, says that remuneration packages "are agreed by independent committees and reflect what it takes to attract, retain and reward individuals of sufficient calibre". But how independent are these committees? In many universities it is a committee of a council, board or similar institution, whose members are chosen by a nomination committee on which the vice-chancellor sits or even chairs.

Furthermore, since the natural comparison for one university is what other universities are paying, and the market is limited almost exclusively to academics, the idea that these absolute levels of remuneration are required to recruit these individuals is untested. How would the pattern of recruitment differ if they were all paid 30 per cent less?

Perhaps vice-chancellors are worth what they are paid. But if they are worth it, they ought to be able to come up with better arguments to justify their salaries.

James Uccello via email.

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