To justify their salaries, v-cs should start looking after their staff

March 2, 2007

Sally Hunt is sceptical that the performance of university heads merits the rises they received

It was good to see The Times Higher finally coming off the fence last week to argue for better pay - even if it is only for vice-chancellors ("Could it be that v-cs deserve their pay rise?", February 23).

As the leader said, it is hard to take issue with the argument that to get the best you have to pay the best. The problem is that this principle is not applied throughout higher education. The response from vice-chancellors' lobby group Universities UK is in essence "because we are worth it". But by what criteria should we judge our leaders?

UK universities have a proud international reputation. As the Prime Minister and his Chancellor have noted, we still punch well above our weight. Yet our success is built on relatively low salaries. It is also built on a workforce more casualised than any other in the UK except catering.

Those who criticise vice-chancellors' pay are often accused of pandering to the politics of envy. Yet high salaries at the top and low pay and job insecurity at the bottom are powerfully symbolic of what is wrong in our sector. The issue goes wider than pay rises and pension top-ups. It is about leadership.

The most important point made by The Times Higher is about what constitutes the kind of "enhanced performance" that could justify increased vice-chancellors' pay. Here are three key areas against which staff judge their vice-chancellor's performance. First, are the policies of our vice-chancellors safeguarding or threatening quality? Lecture and seminar sizes are rising, and staff have less contact time than ever with students.

At the same time, the current teaching system is propped up by thousands of hourly paid staff across the UK, many with low professional status or contractual rights.

Second, are vice-chancellors helping to create an environment where research and scholarship can thrive? Young lecturers say their excessive workload impacts on their family life "far too much and far too often".

Meanwhile, the next generation of researchers is stuck in an apprenticeship-style system where job insecurity is the norm and the chance of a permanent job is tiny.

Third, are our vice-chancellors investing sensibly for our future? The slash-and-burn culture imposed by the research assessment exercise continues to dominate. Reading University's physics department was not the first award-winning department to be closed against the wishes of staff and students. Like many others, it was the victim of a culture that cannot look beyond the next financial year. While departments close, vice-chancellors look to the private sector. The current spate of proposed privatisations of university language centres is the thin end of the wedge. Why put our reputation abroad at risk with reckless joint ventures that reduce our control over the quality and preparation of overseas students, who form an increasingly important part of our sector?

Underpinning this debate is the issue of scrutiny, and this itself is dependent on the quality of university governance. UUK was keen to counter any suggestion that vice-chancellors' pay went unchecked and praised the role of external committees that decide the pay awards. Despite this nod to remuneration committees, there can be no denying that vice-chancellors' pay and pension provision lacks any transparency or guidelines on who gets what and why. Academic staff are subjected to huge scrutiny in terms of their pay, and the University and College Union believes vice-chancellors should not be immune to such analysis.

When it comes to the problems of university governance, vice-chancellors' pay is the tip of the iceberg. Governing bodies that are incapable of representing the views of faculties and students on issues such as privatisation, department closures and mass redundancies have little chance of keeping tabs on whether the vice-chancellor's remuneration package is good or bad value for the institution.

So what can vice-chancellors do to regain staff confidence? This time next year, I hope we will be discussing how vice-chancellors are addressing the problems that staff face daily. Huge workloads, rising class sizes, job insecurity, low pay and job losses are not just "trade union" issues - they have a direct impact on the quality of higher education and on the morale of those who deliver it. Vice-chancellors could start justifying their salaries by enhancing their performance in these areas.

Sally Hunt is joint general secretary of the University and College Union.


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