Mythical market

September 21, 2017

Once again, it is suggested that the “global marketplace that now exists for university leaders” accounts for large rises in the pay of UK vice-chancellors “Are rising fees bankrolling growth in v-cs’ salaries?”, News, 14 September).

To illustrate this point, a tendentious comparison is made between the salaries of university heads in the UK and those in the US and Australia, the two nations that pay the highest salaries in the world to their campus leaders. Why not compare UK vice-chancellors’ salaries with their counterparts in Canada and New Zealand, who are paid less on average? And if this putative “international market” turns out to be just the US and Australia, how great is the actual demand for UK vice-chancellors?

Twenty-nine of Australia’s 39 vice-chancellors are Australian by birth. On the face of it, that 10 Australian vice-chancellors are foreign-born might seem to confirm a high demand for international talent. However, most of those vice-chancellors not born in Australia have lived there for years.

More frequently, these are academics who migrated early in their career and have risen through the ranks. Brian Schmidt, vice-chancellor of the Australian National University, is from the US but has been working in Australia since 1994. Caroline McMillan, vice-chancellor of the University of Newcastle, moved to Australia from the UK in 1983. What all this indicates is not the existence of an international market for vice-chancellors but rather an international market for young scholars, some of whom then go on to senior roles in their adopted countries.

It would appear that only three current vice-chancellors of Australian universities were recruited at that level internationally: David Lloyd (University of South Australia), Ian Jacobs (University of New South Wales) and Paul Wellings (University of Wollongong).

It is very difficult to do a similar analysis of the larger, more complex and diverse US sector, but broadly, the pattern looks the same. In 2011, the Association of American Universities reported that “11 of its 61 American member institutions have foreign-born chiefs”. However, we should note that these individuals may have been “foreign born” but, typically, they were not recruited in an international market; they made their careers in the US.

It thus seems unlikely that the UK would run a serious risk of losing a significant number of vice-chancellors to this tiny “market”, even if we took a chance and paid them less.​

Gervase Phillips
Principal lecturer in history
Manchester Metropolitan University

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