Overpaid and toothless - fat cat v-cs must go

February 8, 2002

The amounts vice-chancellors are now being paid is outrageous - and most offensive of all is the practice of bumping up salaries in the year before retirement, thereby sticking a large bill on the Universities Superannuation Scheme, one of the endangered breed of final-salary pension schemes. High pay and perks might be justified if vice-chancellors were responsible for the success or failure of major enterprises. But they are not. Thanks to their and their predecessors' pusillanimity, they in fact preside over what are, in effect, branch offices of a nationalised industry.

Through the funding councils, the government tells them what to do and how to do it. They are hemmed in by guidelines, targets, thresholds and frameworks, subjected to quality reviews and audits, and have student numbers and fees dictated by head office. Should they try to exercise leadership within their institution, perhaps by proposing some different way of doing things, they can expect votes of no confidence, rejection by senates and academic boards and protests from students to governors. Those who try it are rapidly extruded - especially as more vice-chancellors are now appointed on fixed-term contracts. As a result, few bother, preferring to take the cash and spend their time sitting on more interesting boards of other organisations, some governmental and others not.

Perhaps it is time to recognise this truth and adopt a practice common in continental Europe and not unknown in the United States: appoint the rector or president on a fixed term from among the tenured faculty and let him or her return to the ranks after a fixed period. That way individuals would not be damaged if they tried to offer leadership, sleepers could be removed without difficulty and university staff would have to take more responsibility for their actions. And the saving on the wage bill would come in handy.

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