The high salaries paid to the UK’s vice-chancellors have been attacked by Jo Johnson, the country's universities minister, who said that Russell Group institutions have a particular case to answer.
In a highly unusual move, Mr Johnson also singled out the University of Southampton for criticism, after the institution got bronze – the lowest award – in the teaching excellence framework (TEF). He cited the £352,000 overall pay package of its vice-chancellor, Sir Christopher Snowden, as a prime example of the “sharp increase” in executive pay, saying that Southampton’s head was paid just £227,000 in 2009-10.
Sir Christopher, a former Universities UK president, has been one of the most high-profile critics of the TEF – Mr Johnson's flagship higher education policy – telling Times Higher Education that its results were “meaningless” and “devoid of credibility”.
Speaking at the Festival of Higher Education at the University of Buckingham on 29 June, Mr Johnson appeared to link the TEF to executive pay, saying that there are “legitimate concerns about the rate at which vice-chancellors’ pay is growing”.
Talking about “a Russell Group institution…on the South Coast” whose leader was paid £350,000 following a “steep increase” in pay, Mr Johnson said: “I want to ensure that the students at that institution are getting the best experience, that they’re getting the kind of teaching experience they deserve.
“It’s important that there is a relationship between the fees that they’re paying and the experience they are getting, and that is what is motivating us to introduce the teaching excellence framework.”
In one of the most outspoken attacks on rising executive remuneration, Mr Johnson said: “It is hard at a time when students want to see evidence of value for money to have these concerns about the rate [of increase] of vice-chancellors’ pay.
“I do think vice-chancellors are paid too much, and it does not do much for the morale of their workforce.”
“I have repeatedly urged sector leaders to show pay restraint – I wish [these calls] had been more closely heeded,” he added.
Universities’ leaders within the Russell Group of research-intensive universities had a particular case to answer, Mr Johnson continued, to ensure that “we are not just subject to an endless upwards ratchet of vice-chancellors’ pay that we cannot control”.
“I would urge the Russell Group, as one of our leading university groups, to take steps around this,” he said.
In a statement, a Russell Group spokesman said that “as the minister understands well, delivering a high-quality learning experience with access to world-leading research and cutting-edge facilities requires proper management”.
“Vice-chancellor pay is decided by official remuneration committees which include expert representatives from outside of the sector,” the spokesman added, saying that these panels “understand the importance of attracting and retaining experienced individuals who are capable of managing complex global institutions”.
Asked if he would consider introducing steps to limit executive pay increases, Mr Johnson said that universities are “autonomous bodies” whose pay was set by governing councils.
“However, if the Russell Group wanted to control rates of vice-chancellors’ pay they could – we are watching this very closely and want to see our leading institutions take a lead,” he added.