The generous salaries paid to vice-chancellors have been very much in the news lately. Firstly at Bath, then Southampton, and now in Birmingham, staff, students and outside bodies have challenged what they see as the bloated pay packets of their VCs. Contrasts have been drawn with real-terms reductions in pay for the vast majority of staff, the proliferation of zero-hours contracts, and the cuts in services and provision for students. At a national level, Labour peer Lord Adonis has been busily stirring the pot, so we can look forward to even more instances of vice-chancellors’ pay being exposed to public scrutiny.
But what of our own small and unassuming institution? Every year subtext likes to carry a piece on the size of the vice-chancellor’s emolument and we must conclude that in terms of the sector as a whole, it is modest. It currently stands at £311K per annum, and although appearing rather large to most of us, it comes nowhere near that of his colleagues at Bath (£468K), Southampton (£433K), and Birmingham (£426K). Of course, you could add in the fact that he lives rent-free in a rather spacious and extensively renovated residence standing in its own grounds and with the use of a chauffeur-driven car, but let’s not nit-pick. Unless this year’s accounts show that he’s been given a whopping increase (and let’s not rule this out, what with being University of the Year and all that), he will still be comfortably mid-table in the vice-chancellorial pay league.
What does concern us, however, is the mechanism by which his pay is set. When Bath first hit the headlines, an inquiry into what was going on was undertaken by HEFCE. Its report and recommendations make interesting reading, especially in relation to the conduct of Bath’s Remuneration Committee. While noting that it met HEFCE’s basic requirements, the report went on to say that ‘there is scope for much improvement in the way it operates, particularly in terms of its transparency’. It was unhappy that the vice-chancellor whose pay was set by the Remuneration Committee was herself a member of that same committee (this was also an issue at Southampton and Birmingham). It was also critical of the record-keeping of the Committee, noting that ‘the minutes of Remuneration Committee meetings are insufficiently informative to enable Council members fully to exercise their right to challenge and to take responsibility for decisions that have been delegated to the Committee. Clearer explanations and/or justifications for the remuneration awarded to senior staff are needed.’
Lancaster, we would expect, would be different in the way it conducts these things. But it isn’t. The VC is a member of Lancaster’s Remuneration Committee, though he leaves the room when his own pay is discussed (so did the Bath VC, but that didn’t impress HEFCE). The minutes are not published and those given to the rest of Council are perfunctory, to say the least. As to membership, it is even more restricted than Bath’s, consisting of the Pro-Chancellor (in the chair), the Vice-Chancellor, and two lay members of Council. And that’s it. There is provision for two additional individuals from outside the University to be co-opted, but this option has not been used. It could have been argued that as the Pro-Chancellor (who is also Chair of Council) was appointed by Court, there is a certain degree of independence in the role, but alas, this is no longer the case. The Pro-Chancellor is now to be appointed by Council.
Finally, the HEFCE report makes clear the key role played by Bath University Court in bringing this matter to a head. The pay issue had repeatedly been raised by Court members and ignored. It was the attempt by Bath’s VC to thwart the will of Court that finally triggered the HEFCE inquiry. This shows the importance of having a body to which a university’s chief officer is at least partly accountable, as Professor Henig so strongly argues in his letter (below). This is the body that Lancaster’s Vice-Chancellor, having instigated the removal of Court’s power to appoint the Pro-Chancellor, now seeks to abolish entirely. Can we now look forward to the VC making rapid progress up the pay league? And might there soon be grounds for another HEFCE inquiry?