Excessively diverted

July 27, 2017

Jo Johnson, the universities and science minister, and Lord Adonis, the former education minister, have criticised the high salaries of vice-chancellors, suggesting that this is unacceptable in the present environment of high student debt. When I started as a lecturer on £22,000, in 1990, the vice-chancellor earned just under £90,000. A lecturer starting the same job now will make £32,000 and work for a boss who is being paid £320,000. Universities have defended this by claiming that they are paying for high-value leadership in a competitive world. 

But focusing on leaders’ salaries hides substantive issues elsewhere in the sector, and makes me wonder if Johnson and Adonis are simply engaged in a headline-grabbing exercise similar to what we saw from Gordon Brown in his attack on the University of Oxford over its rejection of a state school pupil. 

Even if vice-chancellors’ salaries were to be reduced by, say, £150,000, the saving will pay for the education of just 10 students.  The real damage comes from a widespread acceptance that it is leadership from the very top, and how that is implemented via a hierarchy of middle managers, that is the driver of success in UK universities. Successful scholarship is primarily dependent on two parameters, neither of which is achievable in a strongly hierarchical setting – curiosity-driven research, and the education of juniors. Scanning papers in my subject area that were submitted for evaluation in the last research excellence framework, I notice that the papers that I would class as world-leading are more likely to have come from a PhD student and his or her supervisor working on an open-ended idea than from an externally funded research grant. Meanwhile, I achieve good evaluations from students who are taking my modules by setting assignments that are challenging. 

Forgetting the true drivers of scholarship, and believing in strong top-down methods of leadership, has had the unfortunate effect of putting politicians in a position where they can accuse vice-chancellors of greed, and those who set their pay of irresponsibility. 

Mahesan Niranjan
Department of electronics and computer science
University of Southampton

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