It's time to end the shabby gentility that pervades UK higher education, says Geoffrey Alderman.
In all the rhetoric that has followed John Randall's resignation as chief executive of the Quality Assurance Agency and Ron Cooke's report on the information that should be collected and published as part of a "light-touch" quality regime, no one seems to have raised pay as a fundamental issue relating to quality assurance and enhancement.
Pay and quality are inextricably linked. Institutions must offer salaries that will attract and keep high-quality teaching and support staff. For this reason, pay and conditions of service are routinely examined on every accreditation visit made by the six accrediting commissions in the United States.
Typically, the salary levels at a US institution up for accreditation or reaccreditation will be compared with the relevant sections of the national survey published annually by the American Association of University Professors.
But US accreditors go further. They will inquire into conditions of service, including tenure and other contractual arrangements, opportunities for promotion, sabbatical leave and other staff development activities. In their reports, they will feel free to indulge in critical assessments of what they find. On a subsequent visit, the accrediting commission will want to know whether and to what extent any previous recommendations in the area of pay and conditions have been acted on.
The QAA has avoided most of these sensitive and contentious areas. Teaching quality assessments might comment on general matters of staff development, and academic audit reports might say something about promotion arrangements. But in general, pay and conditions have been regarded as no-go areas.
There is no logical explanation for such self-denying ordinances. Teaching inspectors could ask about pay. They could conclude that the mediocre salaries an institution offers to its teaching staff adversely affects a department's quality. They could compare actual salaries with those set out in job ads.
They couldI but they never have. One excuse is that in the United Kingdom there are national pay scales. So what? No higher education institution is legally bound to a national pay scale. Another excuse is that publicly funded institutions must follow government policy on public-sector pay. Actually, this is not the case. The typical financial memorandum between the Higher Education Funding Council for England and an English higher education institution will indicate that the institution must "have regard" to government policy on pay, not slavishly follow Whitehall diktats.
Cooke's voluminous recommendations are likewise silent on the issue of pay and promotion prospects. Why? In choosing between universities, a prospective student may want to consider the pay differentials between lecturers in similar departments at a number of institutions. A department that pays more is likely to attract better staff. Such information is easily available to US students. Why should it be denied to British students?
I believe that the answer lies in the shabby gentility that pervades British higher education. Disclosure of actual salary levels is regarded as "not quite British", something nice people do not talk about at all in public, and only in hushed tones in private.
I have also heard it said that pay levels are a managerial prerogative. But quality assurance, if it is about anything, is about verifying or challenging the exercise of managerial prerogative. I see no reason why pay and conditions of service should be exempt.
After all, we are shortly to be given details of the remuneration packages enjoyed by vice-chancellors and principals last year. Why stop with the chief executives?