In the age of austerity, the Browne Review and tuition-fee reform, higher education's leaders have come under harsh scrutiny. There has been trenchant criticism of their salaries, combined with attacks on their failure to mount tougher collective opposition to the government's funding cuts and fees policy.
Despite the hype surrounding the remuneration of vice-chancellors, their pay and benefits packages (excluding pensions) dropped by an average of 1.21 per cent last year, according to Times Higher Education's annual pay survey. Senior sector figures have praised the "restraint" shown amid the financial turmoil in the academy.
But who are our leaders? Where did they study? Are there patterns in their education that will give us clues to their future actions in this period of uncertainty? To gain insights into these issues, THE's well-established pay survey this year is combined with an investigation into the educational backgrounds of the UK's vice-chancellors.
This investigation shows that they do not appear to hail from established social or educational elites, at least for the most part. The majority were educated at state or grammar school; perhaps surprisingly, only 16 per cent sat their undergraduate degrees at the universities of Oxford or Cambridge.
History is the most commonly read undergraduate degree among the sector's bosses. There are 66 science graduates in the cohort, compared with 57 who read humanities or social sciences (see box, below). Less surprisingly, just 17.2 per cent of them are women. And as of March 2011, the average length of time the vice-chancellors have been in post is 4.7 years.
If the background picture is surprisingly mixed (although the glass ceiling seems to be more or less intact), the financial statistics show that the academy's leaders continue to benefit from sizeable pay cheques, despite the sector's monetary worries.
Our analysis of university financial statements, conducted by accountancy firm Grant Thornton, shows that average spending by universities on pay and benefits for vice-chancellors, excluding pensions, stood at £213,813 in 2009-10. While total packages fell by an average of 1.21 per cent, spending on salaries in isolation rose by 0.6 per cent to £208,593.
Some individual vice-chancellors took pay cuts, but pay and benefits packages rose at a number of universities.
The biggest overall spend on pay and benefits was undertaken by the University of Oxford, which paid out a combined figure of £433,000 to Andrew Hamilton and his predecessor John Hood, an increase of 51 per cent on spending in the previous year, reflecting the handover between the two.
Liverpool Hope University, which recently announced plans to cut up to 110 jobs, increased Gerald Pillay's salary by 20.6 per cent to £199,077.
The Committee of University Chairs says that the sector-wide figures "indicate firm restraint in vice-chancellors' remuneration in 2009-10 in what continues to be an extremely difficult financial climate for higher education".
But the academy's trade unions say that the widespread reining in of "pay and perks" in light of the sector's dire finances "makes a mockery" of claims that financial packages are set locally and independently.
The background survey results may shed some light on whether there is any clear contrast between the attitudes of vice-chancellors at the older research-intensive universities and new institutions. Might background differences explain the mission groups' differing stances on fees, and what many see as the sector's failure to mount collective opposition to the government's funding cuts?
Our survey shows that 26 per cent of vice-chancellors went to state schools, 39 per cent to grammars and 20 per cent to private schools (there are no data available on the remainder). But in the Russell Group of large research-intensive universities, 35 per cent of vice-chancellors were privately educated, compared with just 7 per cent in the Million+ group of post-1992 institutions.
Forty-eight per cent of vice-chancellors in the ranks of Million+ went to grammar school, compared with 35 per cent in the Russell Group and 37 per cent in the 1994 Group of smaller research-intensive institutions.
"It is obvious that if you are used to paying the kind of fees independent schools charge - either for yourself or your children - then £9,000 (the new maximum fee) might not seem an awful lot of money," says Les Ebdon, chair of Million+. "But if you come from a poorer background and went to a state school, it seems almost out of this world."
Ebdon, vice-chancellor of the University of Bedfordshire, attended grammar school and then Imperial College London.
"Education transformed my life," he says. "I came from a council estate - not many lads from that estate passed the 11-plus and got to the grammar school."
Has that background been a factor in his commitment to widening participation?
"Absolutely, I'm certain it has," says Ebdon.
But there is background variety among Russell Group vice-chancellors, too. The University of Nottingham's David Greenaway, for example, attended state and grammar school before taking his undergraduate degree at what was then Liverpool Polytechnic, now Liverpool John Moores University.
Sir Leszek Borysiewicz, the University of Cambridge vice-chancellor, went to a comprehensive school before undergraduate study at the Welsh National School of Medicine.
The post-92 leaders include De Montfort University's Dominic Shellard, educated at private school and Oxford, and the University of Worcester's David Green, educated at state school in the US, private school in the UK and then Cambridge.
Green cautions against attributing too much to vice-chancellors' social and educational background, pointing instead to "cohort influence".
He attributes the commitment of some vice-chancellors of his generation to "what would now be called widening participation" to the legacy of the "radical thinking of the 1960s and the early 1970s, which was to do with equal opportunity. The interesting thing will be when people in their late forties start getting to be vice-chancellors - people who went to university during Margaret Thatcher's premiership."
There are several examples of vice-chancellors, he says, "who are very passionate about widening participation because they themselves were the first in their family to enter higher education".
Regardless of background, those who make it to the top can expect generous rewards. Oxford's total spending of £433,000 in pay and benefits on the post of vice-chancellor breaks down into £308,000 in "emoluments" to current head Hamilton - employed for 10 months of the year in 2009-10 - plus £47,000 to his predecessor, Hood. Then there is the £78,000 for Hood's relocation across three continents after leaving the job, detailed in Oxford's accounts. This is constituted of £50,000 "relocation costs" and £28,000 "related tax costs".
Hood joined Oxford from the University of Auckland in 2004 and became what one newspaper described as "Oxford's most unpopular vice-chancellor in living memory" due to his plans to create a university council dominated by businessmen to control the institution's finances. The New Zealander left for the US in September 2009.
THE asked Oxford why the university had paid Hood's relocation costs, which included the expense of moving property to New Zealand and the US. A spokeswoman for the institution says that he had negotiated his post-departure relocation costs when he first took up his post.
"It's a large amount, but a one-off that won't be appearing in the financial statements next year. It is nothing to do with the current vice-chancellor's remuneration package."
The University of Gloucestershire offered the second-biggest pay and benefits package in 2009-10. It spent £399,000 on Patricia Broadfoot, who stepped down from the debt-hit institution at the end of the academic year. This included an extra £198,000 in salary on top of her standard £196,000 salary "in lieu of notice".
In sixth place, the University of Birmingham paid David Eastwood a salary 10 per cent higher than that of his predecessor, Michael Sterling, who led the institution for 19 years. Eastwood, a former chief executive of the Higher Education Funding Council for England, was paid a salary of £341,000.
Ed Smith, Birmingham's pro-chancellor and chair of council, says Eastwood is "recognised both by his peer group and internationally as an outstanding leader of his generation in the sector". Smith adds that it is "also worth noting that (Eastwood) is a generous donor to the university".
Staff at Liverpool Hope are unlikely to look kindly upon the 20.6 per cent rise awarded to their vice-chancellor, Gerald Pillay, which increased his salary to £199,077. In January, the university announced plans to axe up to 110 jobs, citing the financial pressures of government funding cuts. Members of the University and College Union threatened strike action in response to the plans, which could reduce the university's staffing by 10 per cent.
John Devine, chair of council, says that as part of Liverpool Hope's repositioning as a fully fledged university, the senior remuneration panel used 10 other similar institutions as a benchmark in setting Pillay's salary.
"For several years, his salary lagged markedly behind these comparators," Devine says. "The rise in 2009-10 can be attributed to readjusting his salary in line with this group of universities. Nevertheless, Pillay made the personal decision at the time to return a significant proportion of his salary increase in 2009 and all of the 2010 increase to the university's scholarship fund to support disadvantaged students."
Some of the apparently large benefits packages - such as those at the University of Reading and Leeds Trinity University College - are explained by the institutions as being pension benefits dating back over many years.
Meanwhile, some vice-chancellors took pay cuts and some universities managed to save on their new heads. The University of Surrey says that Christopher Snowden - who saw his pay and benefits drop 4 per cent to £313,000 - "volunteered" for the reduction in light of "the challenging economic environment".
Martin Hall, the University of Salford's leader, had a pay and benefits package of £193,000 in 2009-10 - a 37 per cent reduction on the £307,000 the university spent in 2008-09 on his predecessor, Michael Harloe.
A Salford spokesman says the university was "pleased to have made savings in the new vice-chancellor's salary and benefits, while continuing to make improvements in all areas of activity under his leadership".
Malcolm Grant, provost of University College London, was another to take a cut (16 per cent), leaving him with a pay and benefits package of £317,779.
But now is not the time for self-congratulation, say the unions.
Sally Hunt, general secretary of the UCU, says: "This year's figures once again expose the arbitrary nature of vice-chancellors' pay and perks. After years of rises that did real damage to the sector's credibility, their pay appears to have been reined in. This makes a mockery of previous protestations that university pay was decided locally by remuneration committees."
She apportions some of the blame for the government funding cuts on vice-chancellors.
"The infighting of the different mission groups means that even tougher times are ahead and it won't be vice-chancellors on salaries higher than the prime minister who suffer the most," Ms Hunt says.
But Nicola Dandridge, chief executive of Universities UK, says: "The sector's own data for this year show an average rise of just 0.4 per cent in the basic salary of university heads." She adds that vice-chancellors' pay packages are "in line with those in competitor countries and also with heads of public and private organisations of a similar size".
A spokesman for the Universities and Colleges Employers Association says that the increase is "much in line with the overall higher education staff pay rises for the same time period. Between 1 August 2009 and 31 July 2010, all higher education staff covered by the collective pay framework received 0.5 per cent. In addition, the majority of staff (excluding heads of institution) also received an incremental rise of 3 per cent."
The Higher Education Statistics Agency data on pay for academics across the UK sector (see pages 42-44) show that the average wage for full-time academics across the UK's higher education institutions stood at £46,998 in 2009-10, a 0.8 per cent rise on the previous year.
And the message from the Hesa ranking seems clear: if you want top-dollar pay, work at a specialist institution, preferably a business school or music college.
The London Business School is again top, paying its academics an average of £154,386. The Royal College of Music is second, with City University London - which includes the Cass Business School - third.
The London School of Economics, in fourth place, pays its professors an average of £89,365, while "not professors" receive an average of £46,852.
An LSE spokeswoman says this reflects the fact that the institution "competes in a globally competitive market and faces the additional pressure of being based in one of the most expensive cities in the world".
There may be eyebrows raised at seeing Oxford and Cambridge rank relatively low in terms of pay. But the Hesa data reveal only the university salary paid to academics, not the additional element paid by the individual Oxbridge colleges.
Among the lower payers is the University of Buckingham, as yet the UK's only private university. Does this offer a taste of the future for increasing numbers of academics as the government ushers in "alternative providers"?
Terence Kealey, Buckingham's vice-chancellor, says: "Working at an independent university such as Buckingham is so much more fulfilling than working for a state-dependent institution that we all choose to sacrifice salary for personal satisfaction."
The university is not a member of Ucea, which negotiates the pay agreement for those on the national pay scale with the unions.
Does Buckingham recognise trade unions? Kealey says: "Unions would, of course, always be recognised at Buckingham, but since we are a self-governing body on near-Oxbridge lines, against whom would unionised staff be agitating: themselves?"
Another low ranker in the Hesa statistics is the University of Bedfordshire, which is listed as seeing its annual salary for academics fall to £41,631 from £43,362 the previous year.
A Bedfordshire spokeswoman says: "Last year staff received a pay rise of 0.5 per cent and an increment that averaged 2.5 per cent per member of staff.
"The fact that these figures do not reflect a 3 per cent increase would suggest, as we have always suspected, that they are statistically unreliable."
When it comes to leadership, one's studies are no guarantee of loyalty
In popular perception, the humanities are under unprecedented attack from the government, and the UK's vice-chancellors have done little to defend them from the assault.
What makes this all the more surprising is that more than a third of the UK academy's leaders studied the humanities or social sciences.
According to Times Higher Education's survey of the backgrounds of 157 vice-chancellors, 57 university heads read humanities or social science subjects compared with 66 who studied science-based degrees. The most common subject is history, with English coming joint third with engineering.
The most popular "scientific" degree is geography, with 12 vice-chancellors studying it at the undergraduate level.
"Humanities graduates benefit from a holistic intellectual background and are equipped with critical skills well suited to top jobs in the public and private sectors," says Petra Wend, Queen Margaret University's vice-chancellor.
Our survey also reveals a significant gender disparity. Of the 157 institutions, only are run by women - just 17 per cent. Additionally, only one member of the Russell Group of large research-intensive universities is run by a woman - Dame Nancy Rothwell of the University of Manchester.
Christine King, vice-chancellor emeritus of Staffordshire University and author of Through the Glass Ceiling: Effective Senior Management Development for Women (1993), believes this gender disparity has deep implications.
"Universities are facing very challenging times and yet they are still ignoring a great pool of talent," she says. "They are also missing an opportunity to adopt a new approach to diversity as a complete way of thinking and doing, not as a tool for ticking boxes."
The Sutton Trust, which aims to improve social mobility through education, conducted its own research on the educational backgrounds of vice-chancellors in 2007. That research found that 58 per cent went to state grammar schools and 20.5 per cent attended independent schools. Fewer than one in four graduated from Oxbridge.
Lee Elliot Major, director of research and policy at the Sutton Trust, says the THE survey "confirms the overall trends of the Sutton Trust's own analysis, showing that university leaders are different from other professional elites in that they are mostly state-educated".
He adds: "Whatever one believes about grammar schools now, what is apparent is that they produced many future university leaders: the key question will be whether the current high proportion of state-educated university heads continues from a mostly comprehensive state school system."