Tinkering With Symptoms: Why Britain’s Debate About Vice Chancellors’ Salaries Is Misguided

The last few weeks have seen a growing public debate about the pay packages of Britain’s academic CEOs. The vice chancellors at a number of universities, including Birmingham, Bath, Bath Spa and others, have come under heavy pressure to justify salaries that far exceed £100,000, and at least once vice chancellor has resigned. There have been public protests at various universities, and numerous public figures have had much to say on the issue. The vice chancellor of the University of Buckingham captured the tenor of the debate when he emphatically condemned the exorbitant salaries paid to academic CEOs:

“The university sector’s response to the debate around vice-chancellors’ pay has been ‘embarrassing and humiliating’ and damaged its reputation, according to the head of the University of Buckingham. Sir Anthony Seldon, a political historian who has been a vice-chancellor at the university since 2015, said: ‘The sector has not reacted well [to the debate around pay]. We have lost the public argument and we should have responded earlier when it first came up.’ ‘“We should have said we were going to look at what vice-chancellors get paid through an independent review. It has been embarrassing and humiliating, the whole episode, and damaged us nationally and internationally.’”

Nehring Corporate bugThese observations ring true, and it seems worthwhile to subject the work and pay of university CEOs to much greater public scrutiny than they have received in recent years. At the same time, though, it is notable that the issue is discussed in isolation from much broader patterns in the organization of British higher education. At one end of the debate, we find commentators like Jeevan Vasagar. Writing in The Guardian, the newspaper’s former education editor rehearses the boilerplate argument, de rigueur in any public conversation about grossly inflated executive pay, that vice chancellors’ salaries reflect meritocratic principles, in so far Britain’s universities require the best leaders available in order to thrive. In so doing, he compares universities with a range of other business:

“Universities are a rare example of a service industry that is both concentrated and diffuse. Unlike the City, their benefits are spread around the country. Unlike law firms, they are frequently one of the biggest employers in our cities. […] t is worth having a debate about pay ratios. Breakwell’s remuneration is around 30 times the salary of the university’s most junior employees. This is a trifling gap by comparison with the distance between the average bank teller and their chief executive. But it is far wider than the five to one ratio that was proposed by Plato – and adopted for a while by Ben and Jerry’s.”

At the other end of the continuum we find commentators like Kehinde Andrews, one of the few academics (i.e. a scholar not employed in an academic management position) who have publicly intervened in the debate. Andrews places excessive VC salaries in the context of the growing economic hardship students face while attempting to pursue a degree:

“On the same day that news broke that staff at the University of Birmingham are protesting the obscene pay of their vice-chancellor, I opened an email asking for donations to a food bank that my university, Birmingham City, has started for students. This Dickensian contrast in fortunes demonstrates the widening problems of inequality in universities since fees have been introduced. […] Even though students now pay for the privilege of learning, they are not simply consumers, but an active part of what makes university a unique experience. VCs are not directly responsible for all the hardships that students face – the government bears a significant responsibility. But it is undeniable that the changes most universities have championed under their leadership has drastically increased the cost of studying. While some VCs are getting rich, there are students who have to rely on charity for their most basic necessities. Let them eat donated non-perishables.”

The tone of both interventions differs remarkably, Vasagar approving of VCs’ six-figure salaries and Andrews labeling them obscene. Yet both share a common assumption about universities, namely that they are businesses. Andrews is obliquely critical of tuition fees, and elsewhere in his opinion piece he argues that a “captain of industry” reward model suitable for universities. However, all this does not lead him to challenge the ways in which British higher education has been thoroughly commodified in recent years.

In turn, Jeevan Vasagar simply takes it for granted that universities are just like any other company and that their structures and their institutional objectives can be easily compared to say, Ben and Jerry’s ice cream firm or family businesses in Singapore. At the same time, arguing that the leadership of VCs and other academic managers is integral to universities’ success, he ignores the fact that it is academics who perform the intellectual labor around which universities are built, and he appears oblivious to the collegial traditions on which the success of Britain’s universities was built prior to the advent of managerialism.

In this sense, those who criticize vice chancellors’ pay are tinkering with a symptom of a much bigger problem. Universities are not businesses, and scholarship cannot be bought and sold like ice cream. Universities are built on intellectual labor on the part of professors, lecturers and students. The insistence on the part of policy makers, public commentators and academic managers that this is not so – that learning must be bought and sold – disfigures this intellectual labor. To say so publicly seems unwelcome and off-limits in Britain today. The blinkered debate about VCs’ salaries is an expression of this taboo.

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Daniel Nehring

My career so far has taken me to a fairly wide range of places, and this has allowed me to experience a wide range of approaches to sociology and social science. In my blog, I reflect on this diversity and its implications for the future of the discipline.

Over the last few years, I have also become interested in exploring the contours of academic life under neoliberal hegemony. Far-reaching transformations are taking place at universities around the world, in terms of organisational structures, patterns of authority, and forms of intellectual activity. With my posts, I hope to draw attention to some of these transformations.

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