Sector leadership in the UK is “not fit for purpose” and reform of Universities UK is “long overdue”, according to one vice-chancellor.
Speaking at Times Higher Education’s THE Live event, Anthony Forster, the vice-chancellor of the University of Essex, said that Universities UK should not be a representative group of vice-chancellors “but the representative group of universities, of which vice-chancellors represent their communities”.
Mission groups created a dynamic that was “not always as constructive as it might be”, Professor Forster said. Distinctions between different groups could be unhelpful, because world-class research was going on across the whole spectrum of universities in the UK, he said.
“The reform agenda [of Universities UK] is long overdue and I want to be a champion and an advocate for that,” he said.
Also speaking on the panel was Edward Peck, vice-chancellor of Nottingham Trent University, who criticised the sector for not responding quickly enough to important issues such as the furore over vice-chancellor pay.
“Once it started, some of the statements that were made were unwise,” he said. “I think it’s part of a broader malaise that the university is not responding fast enough to the expectations or perceptions that staff, students and politicians have of the sector.”
One of the ways to avoid the uproar “was for some of the v-cs not to be paid so much”, Professor Peck added. “I do find it difficult to understand how we get the situation where the person running the university, which is quite a tough job, is earning twice as much as someone running a hospital in the same city, which is a really tough job.”
However, Professor Peck added that he did believe in performance-related targets, including for his pay. “If you go on the university website from Monday, you will find a detailed account of the [key performance indicators] for the university, how we’ve done and why I’m paid what I’m paid. It’s as simple as that.”
Chris Day, vice-chancellor of Newcastle University, agreed that the sector response was too slow, but added that he felt the chairs of universities’ governing bodies had been too silent throughout the discussion. Vice-chancellors’ salaries are set by their remuneration committees.
“They could have at least explained where those numbers come from,” Professor Day said.
He added that university leaders were often quick to defend their salaries by saying that their institutions are not entirely taxpayer-funded and are more akin to the commercial sector. Professor Day said that, if that was the case, they must accept that if they did not do well, their salaries should reflect that.