V-cs: useless or priceless?

Fred Inglis and Nicola Dandridge offer diametrically opposed views of the quality and value of the academy’s leaders

May 10, 2012

Credit: Miles Cole

Academy rots from the head and it stinks...

Cupidity, timidity, pusillanimity: Fred Inglis looks upon the work of the UK's current crop of vice-chancellors and despairs...

Once upon a time, and a very good time it was, a serious economist and academic wrote higher education policy. Lionel Robbins gave all universities a following wind, and vice-chancellors of greenfield sites could choose their very architects. Asa Briggs, a radical scholar of adult education, appointed Basil Spence, to the enhancement of civic architecture everywhere. Eric James, a former schoolteacher, decided on a collegiate framework at the University of York - "the oldest new university in the world", people said - and the students loved it.

Golden ages give off a terrific glow, but that one has faded from sight. It was Walter Bagehot who distinguished between the "dignified" and the "effective" arms of the state. Over the years, vice-chancellors have put on dignity and lapsed into ineffectuality. A powerful force pushing this process has been the long decline in social democracy initiated by the 18 years of Thatcherite tyranny. At its beginning, the always harebrained Keith Joseph sliced 16 per cent off university budgets in one go. I vividly remember how one vice-chancellor of the University of Bristol, a well-known physicist, simply followed disciplinary bigotry and offered to close five arts departments. He then found a queue of volunteers for early retirement and his own senate voted him down.

Since those demotic days, senates have vanished from sight, vice-chancellors have become chief executives, Tory England has strengthened its grip once more, the Russell Group has been created ("only, my dear fellow, for the maintenance of standards") and the language of managerialism has rotted from within the never-very-strong value of solidarity drifting through the academic body.

Amid this mournful indifference, the vice-chancellors have largely handed over the tough stuff to the pro vice-chancellors, who stride about with staring eyes, clutching spreadsheets, seeking those of their juniors whose salaries they can devour while naturally leaving untouched the overpaid professoriat, with its private school fees and the mortgage on the Cotswold farmhouse to fund.

In this solitude, the vice-chancellor is largely left alone to take a chauffeur-driven Mercedes to the airport and hunt for charity. Or alternatively, he (and very occasionally she) dines with a junior minister and burnishes the chance of the knighthood that is the shameful ambition of so many to acquire.

This wretched preoccupation offers one explanation of the timidity and acquiescence of vice-chancellors. We were recently treated to the unappetising sight of the president of Universities UK beneath an unforgivably grinning photograph assuring us that universities will have more money than ever before when the fee cheques flow in. If that's not toadying, what is? And what kind of scholar agrees, as at Keele University, to close its philosophy department with 400 students and the ghost of A.D. Lindsay at his shoulder?

Nor are vice-chancellors immune to the present poisoning of the English mind by crude cupidity. The former director of the London School of Economics notoriously took his revolver to the library after the disclosure of his institution's cosying up to the Gaddafichequebook. But mishaps are mostly confined, naturally, to institutions below the salt. When the University of Gloucestershire's leader couldn't do her sums, she stepped down. The harshness of unemployment was softened, however, by a payout of £265,000.

The inescapable conclusion is that many vice-chancellors are not very bright. Certainly they lack as a body both courage and communality. Of course, one might wonder why any scholar with a strong vocation and some talent for the discipline would want such a job in the first place. Then one hears of a good man or woman or two, and is cheered up. The rumour is that Eric Thomas, presently at Bristol, launched the donor programme there with £100,000 of his own, an agreeable coincidence of money and mouth. Along the Mile End Road, Simon Gaskell has been quietly pursuing a vision of the città ideale, never more so than in the magnificent new humanities building. There again, his stooges have put 40 academics on redundancy warning...

At Sunderland and Northumbria universities, faced with responsibilities to a disgracefully neglected area, Peter Fidler and Andrew Wathey, respectively, have been prominent in programmes addressed to the dereliction of life in the North East.

But the fact remains that vice-chancellors have often proved cowardly and always incapable of collective action; have done almost nothing to defend the idea of the university, not as a business but as a fortress of civilisation; and have provided no signs of leadership when the very word has become cant while the thing itself is so much needed. At a time when they are faced by as nasty a militant tendency in national politics as has been seen for many years, they are failing the test of history.

Fred Inglis is honorary professor of cultural history at the University of Warwick.

...No, sector's big fish a value-for-money dish

Nicola Dandridge argues that vice-chancellors are ambassadors, fundraisers and troubleshooters who lead from the front and don't cost the earth

Times Higher Education's annual survey of vice-chancellors' pay heralds the start of open season on senior salaries. Each year we see responses motivated by a range of interests: political, personal or vested. But there is a more fundamental issue at stake, far more important than politics or prurience, and that relates to how we value leadership in higher education.

Last week was Universities Week, a campaign that promotes the value of our institutions and the contribution they make to the UK's economic, social and cultural well-being. The annual event was established by Universities UK in response to a widespread concern that the UK undervalues its universities. Comparisons are drawn with the US, where universities are generally held in high esteem and are perceived as more integral to the fabric of society than is the case here.

It is no coincidence that the US values not only its universities but also their presidents. At the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, for instance, total presidential compensation in 2009 was $931,603 (£576,058), according to Internal Revenue Service data; in the same year, the presidents of Ohio State and Washington universities received total compensations of $1,818,911 and $905,004, respectively, according to the US press. Furthermore, 36 presidents of private colleges earned more than $1 million. Of course, not all earn these sums and comparisons could well be made with countries where vice-chancellors' salaries are lower, but these are likely to be universities where the leadership role is smaller and constrained in scope.

Universities in the UK are like no other organisation, making the role of the vice-chancellor unique. University heads take responsibility for student and staff welfare, alongside high-value commercial decisions, managing the university estate, and working with business and communities to improve skills and boost research and knowledge exchange. Internationally, vice-chancellors are ambassadors, fundraisers and community leaders. Frequently they have global academic reputations and come from strong commercial backgrounds. Few jobs are as demanding.

The quality of our university leadership at all levels matters. While leadership is rightly becoming increasingly distributed, the vice-chancellor alone remains responsible for a range of critical decisions. An example is the increasing focus on internationalisation, with global perspectives permeating many university activities. That engagement brings with it significant economic, political and reputational risks, for all of which the vice-chancellor is ultimately responsible.

The Hutton Review of Fair Pay in 2011 focused less on international comparisons and more on the relationship between public and private sector pay. Although universities sit somewhere between the two, for the purpose of Will Hutton's report, universities are treated as public. In it he notes the substantial differential between chief executives in the public and private sectors, with the leaders of companies with turnovers of £101 million to £300 million earning more than twice as much as their public sector counterparts. Even adjusting for the fact that private chief executives need to ensure their organisations remain profitable before they are paid, Hutton notes that "analyses of job size and complexity still consistently find that public sector roles pay considerably less".

A good illustration may be found by comparing vice-chancellors' pay with the salaries of the leaders of two private higher education organisations in the UK: the chief executives of BPP University College and the College of Law reportedly benefited from packages of £738,000 and £430,000-£440,000, respectively, in 2009-10 (THE, "Enigma variations", 1 March).

Despite these trends, what is evident from reviews of vice-chancellors' pay this year and last is the awareness of the need for restraint, given the economic climate. In 2010-11, the vast majority of vice-chancellors received little or no uplift in their basic pay. In the same year, the national average rise for higher education staff was 0.4 per cent, although of course many received incremental rises, too. Indeed, the ratio of median vice-chancellors' salaries to median teaching professionals' pay has remained unchanged for nearly a decade.

Debates about appropriate levels of pay are not going to go away - nor indeed should they, particularly as an increasing proportion of university income will come via student loans. However, we do need to avoid our peculiarly British disease of denigrating what is one of our greatest success stories. The truth is that our universities are outstanding: they transform people's lives and make extraordinary contributions to our economy, our society and to the cultural richness of our communities. Undermine the value of our leaders, and we risk undermining the value of our universities.

Nicola Dandridge is chief executive of Universities UK.

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