The recent debate over vice-chancellors’ pay has been frustrating. While academics have faced years of real-term pay cuts and increasingly precarious employment, anger at senior managers’ spiralling remuneration is certainly justified.
Critics such as Lord Adonis, the former education minister, have ignored the first fact, using vice-chancellors’ pay to paint the higher education sector as wastefully overfunded. On the other hand, defenders of high pay rightly point out that universities are much larger and more complex organisations than they used to be. Pay might look excessive, but it is simply determined by the market rate.
What matters here is the kind of job that we expect vice-chancellors and other senior managers to do. In today’s management culture, these roles carry enormous power and responsibility. They are high-pressure jobs that few people can do, which is why they end up paying so handsomely.
But this culture has its own history. It came about because, over two decades of expansion and reform, both the government and the public have increasingly come to see higher education in a new way. Rather than learning and scholarship, universities now provide job training to employers and a consumer experience to students. Vice-chancellors have had to impose those criteria on reluctant university communities – and they have needed a lot of power to do so.
There are, however, alternative ways of organising our universities. One of them would be to devolve power to staff and students in their colleges, divisions and departments – building democratic structures for collaborative decision-making. Of course, there has to be some central coordination of resources, and people to facilitate it. We might even still need vice-chancellors. Better an academic on secondment for a few years, though, than a chief executive in a chauffeured Bentley.
Some things would be lost in such a world. There would no doubt be fewer eye-catching, big-budget capital expenditures, like my university’s new Olympic-size swimming pool. There would be much less restructuring and fewer centralised initiatives to transform how we work. We would no longer spread “best practice” and efficiency by means of endless surveys, forms and training exercises. There would be not only fewer press releases, but also less systematic quality-assurance processes.
This is not about returning to some pre-expansion golden age. There are serious problems in our universities, including sexual harassment among staff and students.
The question is, does having high-powered vice-chancellors help to address those problems? As cheerleaders for their institutions, university leaders have often chosen to cover up serious incidents rather than to deal with them. Instead we need to properly empower all staff and students to speak up when things go wrong, individually and through unions. Abuse is easiest when power structures are opaque and vertical – we need to make them more transparent and horizontal.
Perhaps without the strong whip hand of management, staff will get lazy and complacent. They will not do good research or come up with new teaching ideas or continually push themselves to improve the learning and scholarship that goes on in their institutions. Perhaps.
But with central management deployed to implement new government “frameworks” every few years, is the system we have now making our universities work better? Or are false metrics and skewed incentives from management holding back the work we could be doing to advance real learning and real scholarship?
Either way, we cannot discuss vice-chancellors’ pay as if it were isolated from the structures and forces at work in higher education. I would support a pay ratio that meant no one earns over 10 times more than anyone else does. A pay cut for top brass is neither here nor there without changing the highly-centralised power structures that it represents.
The same, of course, is true throughout society. High executive pay – in private and public sectors alike – is part of a deeply hierarchical culture of work and management, both a symptom and a cause of massive inequality. When power and responsibility increase, it’s only natural that the pay and perks should follow. We can get as angry as we like about the latter, but we won’t get anywhere until we’re ready to address the former.
Tom Cutterham is a lecturer in US history at the University of Birmingham.