Why I... want to see vice-chancellors on the picket line

February 20, 2004

Between 1994-05 and 2001-02, the salary of vice-chancellors increased between 42 per cent and 80 per cent. Today's figures in The Times Higher show that this upwards trend is continuing unabated despite the fact that during the same period the pay of academic and related staff has risen by only 25 per cent.

In the past decade, the average pay for non-manual employees has increased by 47 per cent compared with 30 per cent for full-time academic and academic-related staff. Teachers in secondary education have seen their salaries rise by 40 per cent, civil servants by 50 per cent and medical practitioners by 57 per cent. So vice-chancellors have in many cases exceeded non-manual trends while managing persistently to downgrade those who work in the institutions they run.

People who run large institutions, deal with large budgets, a large and varied workforce producing tomorrow's graduates, respond to government policy and push forwards the boundaries of knowledge should be paid a salary befitting that responsibility. I do not advocate low pay for all.

But maybe vice-chancellors would do well to consider the impact on staff morale with every increase they accept and every poor pay deal they inflict. They could consider the fixed-term contract worker who slaves away at the bottom end of the salary scale dealing with insecurity and no hope of getting a mortgage. Or the average lecturer with ever-increasing student-to-staff ratios and pointless bureaucratic procedures, trying desperately to do research in evenings and at weekends. They could spare a thought for the poor heads of departments who have to deliver unpopular policies to an overstretched and demoralised workforce. But what do vice-chancellors think the rest of us are worth? The answer: 3.44 per cent for 2003 followed by 3 per cent for 2004. Thanks.

However, the proposed deal is a travesty not because of the dismal pay offer, but for the long-term damage it does to our pay structures. There are three things that really stick in my throat. First, incremental scales get longer not shorter (research on equal opportunities shows that longer pay scales produce more pay discrimination). Second, incremental points get smaller not larger (as a result, researchers would lose £17,000 over nine years, academic-related staff would lose £47,000 over 21 years and academic staff would lose £6,000 over eight years). And third, local flexibility is built in at every stage. (AUT research shows that local pay leads to lower pay and higher gender pay gaps.) What is on vice-chancellors' minds? Affordability is the usual retort - "we think you are marvellous but we can't afford to pay you more - don't blame us, blame the government". No one denies that funding is an issue, but this is also a case of priorities. Since 1976 the proportion of expenditure on pay has declined from 70 per cent to 58 per cent in 2000-01. In 2003-04, funding for higher education (excluding capital funding) is up by 6.7 per cent; in 2004-05 it will rise by 5 per cent and by 7.6 per cent the following year.

Apparently the Universities and Colleges Employers Association, the people vice-chancellors pay to do the pay negotiations for them, cannot understand what all the fuss is about. They are acting as if we are barking mad.

Ucea's response is posturing of the worst kind. We are a reasonable bunch of folk. On the whole we like our work and do not like to cause a fuss. We are also fairly clever and can spot the difference between a slap and a tickle. Imagine for one moment the prospect of vice-chancellors accepting a similar deal for their own pay.

I suspect that most vice-chancellors have not read the offending Framework Agreement for the Modernisation of Pay Structures . If they had, they would surely credit their academic and related staff with the intelligence to reject it and be supporting us on the picket lines next week.

Natalie Fenton is senior lecturer at Loughborough University and vice-president of the Association of University Teachers.

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