For v-cs, it’s not all about the money

The argument that v-cs will jump ship if their salary doesn’t match that of commercial comparators rings hollow

May 19, 2016
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“Pay us less. That’s what I’d do. It’s not rocket science.”

So said Chris Evans, one of television’s highest paid stars, after the government unveiled the first of two major White Papers published in the past week – this one about the future of the BBC.

The question of pay was high on the list of gripes about the broadcaster, as it often is, and the argument deployed in response was equally familiar: that if the BBC didn’t pay top dollar, stars would leave. But would they? Some might, but as Evans’ remarks suggest, there are other considerations at play.

Take, for example, the recent saga of Robert Peston’s defection from the BBC to ITV.

The star political editor was reportedly lured away with a significant pay raise to add weight to ITV’s revamped news output, including a new Sunday-morning political magazine show to compete with Andrew Marr on BBC One. In the show’s launch week, Peston pulled 167,000 viewers v Marr’s 1.59 million. His pay packet has grown, but his reach has taken a tumble.

The fact is that the BBC holds a place in British life that commercial rivals will never replicate. It is public service broadcasting, and the argument that it must always match commercial competitors pound for pound is flawed: some stars may indeed be able to earn more elsewhere, but many won’t move and those who do are taking a risk – stars can wane, and new ones are constantly being born.

There are parallels with higher education and the executive pay discussed in our cover story.

Universities are not businesses, and no one goes into academia for the money.

So the argument trotted out in response to concern about rising salaries at the top – that talent must be remunerated at a rate that matches what it could get elsewhere – falls rather flat.

University leaders may be able to get more lucrative gigs elsewhere – at universities overseas, perhaps, or in private industry. But how many would actually make the jump? And would it matter if they did?

The second White Paper published in recent days is, of course, on the future of higher education, and its overarching theme is to inject a bigger dose of market forces into a system that the government fears is too slow to respond to the demands of students and too quick to shut the door on new competition.

Be that as it may, universities ultimately serve the public good, and while they must be financially sustainable, efficient and ambitious, their lifeblood will remain an academic workforce and ethic that, even at the top, does not revolve around a bulging pay packet or the drive to create shareholder value.

At a time when academic pay is being kept under sustained pressure (provoking yet another threat of strike action from the University and College Union), remuneration committees that ignore this unique institutional culture risk separating the head from the body.

So by all means pay a high-performing university leader a good salary for doing a complex job, but let’s not fool ourselves that he or she is the only person in the world who could do it, or that there’s always a FTSE 100 company waiting in the wings to whisk them away. There probably isn’t – and even if there is, it’s beside the point.

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