The “furore” around the pay of universities’ senior leaders could deter high-profile researchers from coming to the UK, while Wales’ “very sensible” generous living cost support for students could offer a model for England if successful, according to the new Universities UK president.
Janet Beer, the University of Liverpool vice-chancellor who took up her UUK post last month, said she did not think the organisation “would propose that we would do anything about fees” in England, arguing the issue of maintenance funding was far more important for students and widening participation.
She spoke to Times Higher Education ahead of UUK’s annual conference, on 6-7 September.
On the question of vice-chancellors’ pay – where Labour peer Lord Adonis has generated much critical media coverage – she said that the UK is “at the bottom” of the international pay league.
“We run large, complex organisations and we are working in an internationalised environment” in terms of the recruitment market, she added.
Following Lord Adonis’ interventions, universities minister Jo Johnson has said that institutions must “justify the exceptional circumstances” for pay awards exceeding the prime minister’s £150,000 salary.
Professor Beer highlighted the salaries needed to attract leading researchers from overseas in fields such as medical science and materials discovery. She feared that they “will be put off coming to work in our universities for the public good, by this furore around people being awarded what [critics] are calling salaries that are somehow not appropriate for people who are working for the public good”.
Although many researchers take a pay cut to work in the UK, “I don’t think that they should have to take so substantial a pay cut, below some…arbitrary number like £150,000, in order to do work here that will change the world,” Professor Beer said.
But should there be greater transparency about how remuneration committees make their decisions on vice-chancellors’ pay?
“The Committee of University Chairs have got that in hand,” said Professor Beer, whose Liverpool salary was £300,500 in 2015-16. “They need to be very clear about the way in which this works. I think that there is transparency.”
She said that benchmarking also suggests that roles such as university finance directors and human resources directors are below peers in the private sector.
“People make sacrifices to work in universities,” she said, adding: “I’m not suggesting that I’m hard done by or that I’m not very well paid.”
Professor Beer also said that this was “not to say that we could not be better at explaining, and indeed at demonstrating, that we adhere to all the best principles of governance”.
Asked about Labour’s election pledge to abolish fees in England, Professor Beer said that it “sounds like an attractive proposition, but what we need to be clear about is the fact that it is not a progressive one, because the people who would benefit most from it are the middle classes, are the affluent students”.
The Institute for Fiscal Studies recently highlighted the regressive nature of the Conservative government’s moves to abolish maintenance grants and retrospectively freeze the loan repayment threshold (the latter change backed by UUK).
Professor Beer highlighted the Welsh government’s moves to switch public funding away from fee subsidies to generous maintenance grants and loans.
“I think it will be very interesting to see what happens in terms of the Welsh government’s adoption of the Diamond recommendations, where it looks to me like they have taken the best bits of other funding systems and they have put them together in a very sensible package,” she said, calling the Welsh system “very interesting for the rest of us”.
Professor Beer added that in England, where annual fees rose to £9,250 this year, “we do have to talk about maintenance grants, I think we do have to talk about the repayment threshold, I think we do have to talk about the interest rates. And we would be derelict if we didn’t.”
What is needed in England is a “consistent and predictable system of funding”, she said, that ensures student number controls do not return, which she argued was vital for the needs of the economy.
“So I don’t think we would propose that we would do anything about fees. Where students feel it is in…the pound in their pocket – it’s what they have to spend day to day. I think the fees are kind of neither here nor there, as long as they are [in] proportion.”
Professor Beer, who specialises in the study of the American novelist Edith Wharton in her academic career, takes over as president as UUK prepares to celebrate its 100th anniversary, having formed as the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals in 1918.
Her aim as president is to stress that universities are “crucial anchor institutions in every bit of the four nations of the United Kingdom”, which she said will involve “getting out into parts of our communities that we don’t normally touch” as universities.
A former vice-chancellor of Oxford Brookes University who has worked at Warwick, Roehampton and Manchester Metropolitan universities, Professor Beer’s background might help her to span a sector that many fear is increasingly stratified by government policy.
“I wrote to all vice-chancellors on my first day and said…I thought that we had more in common, more to unite us, than could divide us,” she said.
“Higher education has a higher purpose: that is about education, discovery, values as well as being about giving people the wherewithal to earn a good living. I don’t think that we should forget that.”