Ministerial calls for more investigations into vice-chancellors’ “high pay” risk overstretching England’s higher education regulator and undermining the autonomy of institutions, sector experts have warned.
In a guidance letter to the Office for Students (OfS) published on 27 February, education secretary Damian Hinds highlighted the issue of the “high pay” of university senior staff, stating that it “must be justified by high performance” and that “expenses and severance payments should, in all cases, be reasonable and justifiable”.
Mr Hinds also urged England’s higher education regulator to “consider carrying out independent reviews of the adequacy and effectiveness of management and governance” at institutions where “issues with senior staff pay lead to concerns over governance”.
The advice comes after the OfS confirmed that it was “looking into a number of regulatory matters” at De Montfort University, which awarded a 22 per cent salary increase to its vice-chancellor Dominic Shellard last year.
Professor Shellard left the Leicester institution last month amid reports that he had a business link with the chairman of his remuneration committee.
Mr Hinds’ call for the OfS to intervene more frequently in cases of excessive high pay raised “serious questions about institutional autonomy and self-governance”, said Mike Shattock, visiting professor at UCL Institute of Education, whose book The Governance of British Higher Education will be published later this year.
“I do not think that the OfS is really set up to run lots of inquiries into whether vice-chancellors are overpaid or not,” said Professor Shattock, a former registrar at the University of Warwick.
“It has only two people on its board, other than its chair, with a university background, so I’m not sure the OfS will want to spend time examining exactly how various institutions’ governance is arranged,” he added of the body, which has promised “light-touch regulation” of established universities.
According to The Times, Mr Hinds has also urged universities to “up their game” in taking more disadvantaged students, stating that globally competitive pay packets were deserved only if they were doing outstanding work in widening participation.
“That would seem a rather narrow criterion for remuneration committees,” said Professor Shattock.
If Mr Hinds’ guidance is followed, it is likely to mean more reviews similar to that carried out by the OfS’ predecessor, the Higher Education Funding Council for England, which highlighted “poor governance” at the University of Bath, which was hit by scandals over pay and benefits for former vice-chancellor Dame Glynis Breakwell.
However, Eve Alcock, Bath’s student union president, who investigated governance at Bath via Freedom of Information requests, said the university’s own review had been most effective in increasing transparency.
“Universities themselves should be stepping up to get their own house in order so that they learn what best practice is and experience its benefits,” said Ms Alcock.
“This makes reform more sustainable and has increased conviction behind it compared to reform being imposed on institutions by a regulator [which] runs the danger of becoming a box-ticking exercise,” she added.
However, Michael Carley, UCU branch president at Bath, said that “any move towards transparency is to be welcomed, especially where arrangements for pay collide with proper governance”.
“The one concern is with pay being justified by ‘performance’ [which is] measured by a set of metrics which do not reflect the intellectual and cultural values of higher education,” he added.