Top pay for top dogs

February 7, 2003

Grow up, says Andrew Oswald. Vice-chancellors deserve high salaries for all the work they do

I was in a meeting of senior business people in London last week. They wanted to know what university middle managers earned. When they were told, their eyes rolled. Can that kind of money buy you good people? they asked.

I tried to explain that it was more complicated than that. Yet they have a point we cannot ignore.

Envy is one of the most human of emotions, but it must be resisted. This issue of The THES carries a league table on the pay of Britain's vice-chancellors. I disapprove of such a ranking and believe it should be scrapped. It is time the British grew up.

Once we look at a few facts about the world, it is plain that vice-chancellors are underpaid, not overpaid. It is bad for any of us and inherently childish to dwell obsessively on the lives of others. In other aspects of university life, there is general criticism (deserved, I think) of league tables and rankings. Yet many university teachers seem to forget this when it comes to league tables of their bosses' remuneration.

Suddenly, the critics become avid consumers.

First, vice-chancellors are chief executives of big complicated organisations. In the business world, such people now usually earn between £500,000 and £1 million a year. Many dozens of them earn more than £1 million a year. By contrast, the typical vice-chancellor in our country takes home about £150,000 a year.

Second, whatever some lecturers appear to believe, being a university vice-chancellor is a rough job that takes talent and experience. It is self-deception to think otherwise.

Third, the white paper on education makes it clear that the government wants university bosses to have formal managerial qualifications.

Whatever one thinks about government intervention in higher education (and I am dubious about the value of politicians telling us how to act), it is clear that the thrust of recent government action has been to worsen the quality of life of vice-chancellors and to require ever more training for senior academics.

Fourth, university life has changed irrevocably. Financial pressures are severe; many institutions are virtually bankrupt. Higher education operates in a cut-throat global market. The peculiarly British torture of the infamous acronyms - QAA, RAE and the rest - leave lines on the foreheads of those at the top of university administrations.

People who ran universities in the heady days of the mid-1960s could not have envisaged the difficulties their successors would face. A vice-chancellor today must be a part-time accountant, a part-time fundraiser and a part-time politician. Although I believe we still need researchers running universities, having MBA after your name is probably now more useful than having FRS.

Fifth, there is a shortage of good, qualified applicants for these jobs. A great deal of musical chairs goes on: people switch from one senior job to another. Headhunting firms are particularly gloomy about Britain's chances of finding the next generation of vice-chancellors. One indication is the type of person we are now seeing appointed: Howard Davies may be an excellent choice by the London School of Economics, but he is nothing like the leaders of old. Renaissance academic men are out, professional managers are in.

Sixth, take note of North America. University bosses there earn far more than in Britain - typically about double.

Perhaps you react to this by feeling grumpy about your own salary? Maybe you are justified; maybe you are not. Either way, it is not a grown-up reason to object to the remuneration of your vice-chancellor. Salaries in universities have to be competitive with those paid outside academia.

Andrew Oswald is professor of economics at Warwick University.

» Statistics section: Vice-chancellors' pay

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