Students generally do not know even vaguely how much their vice-chancellors earn, as revealed by a very unscientific survey of student bloggers after Times Higher Education’s pay survey was published.
The annual pay survey showed that the highest cost of a vice-chancellor office in the UK was at Durham University, where the total cost of office was £593,000 in 2014-15.
Only one student estimated a figure anywhere near that amount, and then only after revising his original guess of £75,000.
Five student bloggers in the UK, Germany, Canada and Hong Kong guessed, without any prior knowledge, how much the vice-chancellor or president at their university received.
The highest estimate was from Charlie Pullen, a master’s student at Queen Mary University of London.
He said: “I was going to say about £75,000, because it’s roughly that for MPs.
“But then I thought that’s way too low for a salary that’s being described as unrestrained (although I wouldn’t sniff at it); maybe something nearer £500,000 would be closer to the mark, since it’s about 10 times what many academics get paid.”
In fact, his vice-chancellor, Simon Gaskell, earns a basic salary £275,000, just over half of Charlie’s final guess. A junior academic at the university earns on average £54,407 a year, roughly what Charlie assumed.
The comparison between the vice-chancellor’s pay and that of academic and support staff is more favourable at Queen Mary than, for example, at Durham, where junior academics receive £48,378 on average, support staff get £29,000 and manual staff receive just £18,963, despite the fact that the vice-chancellor's office is one of only three in the UK costing more than £500,000.
At the University of Leeds, vice-chancellor Sir Alan Langlands earns roughly the same as the vice-chancellor of Queen Mary – £278,000.
And like Charlie with his first guess, Noorin Malik, a law student at Leeds, guessed that the senior management earn between £60,000 and £70,000 a year.
She reasoned that this figure – which she deemed to be a relatively high salary – could be justified because the government relied heavily on research by academics at the university.
She said: “I believe that they are paid a great amount as not many people research in the field the government requires for contemporary purposes.”
The average vice-chancellorial pay package at the UK’s Russell Group universities is £356,317, well below the average remuneration of £540,000 at Australia’s leading eight universities, but comparable to the minimum salary for a president at a top US private university.
And around the world, it seems that students are just as surprised by the figures, or similarly clueless, although some bloggers employed sound reasoning to make educated guesses.
Felix Simon, an undergraduate at Goethe University Frankfurt in Germany, simply said: “Unfortunately I have no clue what the management of the Goethe-University in Frankfurt earns.”
But Melisa Junata, a student at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, tried to work it out.
She said: “I have heard from friends and staff in my university that an assistant professor is paid at HK$60,000 per month minimum, and a tenured professor can be paid about HK$150,000 a month.
“So in this case, I am guessing that my vice-chancellor and other v-cs in Hong Kong are paid at least three times the tenured professor pay – about HK$450,000, or £40,000.”
Although the vice-chancellorial salary data for Hong Kong universities are not publicly available, an estimate of £40,000 a month, or £480,000 a year, is comparable to the UK figures.
Only one blogger – Shubhi Sahni at the University of Toronto in Canada – referenced any controversy over the salaries of university management.
She said: “I am guessing that our vice-chancellor makes anywhere between C$200,000 and C$250,000 a year.
“I remember that this was a huge discussion point during the teaching assistant strike last year. Teaching assistants were upset at the amount upper management got compensated while they were fighting for a survivable living wage.”
According to data from 2012, Toronto’s vice-chancellor in fact received C$388,400.84 as a basic salary, and C$52,951.48 in taxable benefits, making his total remuneration more than C$440,000, or £230,000, less than the average total package at UK universities in 2014: £274,405.
Despite engaging with higher education debates, and even public conversation specifically around high salaries for senior university management, most of these student bloggers initially guessed figures that significantly underestimated the amount that vice-chancellors receive.
This week, a website poking fun at the excessive administrative and managerial roles at universities appeared, suggesting estimated salaries for prestigious invented positions.
One of the highest estimated salaries was for “Vice-Chancellor of the Subcommittee for Athletic Planning”, a post rewarded with a princely $634,543 – in the same ballpark as the salaries of real-life vice-chancellors and university presidents.
Click here to explore the interactive tools to compare vice-chancellor salaries against average academic salaries and scores for the REF, the NSS and the THE World University Rankings.