Stubbornness, Optics, and Greed: My Take on the UK's VC Pay Dilemma

Stop taking pay rises

December 7, 2017

Unlike US higher education where a chancellor or president is the CEO of a university, most of the chief executive positions in the UK come with the title of "vice-chancellor." The chancellor role is mostly ceremonial. E.g Jeremy Irons is the current chancellor of Bath Spa University.

Bath Spa University was recently in the news due to the outrageous "golden handshake" that their outgoing vice-chancellor received in the 2016/17 academic year. It was a lot of money. £808,000 ($1,088,828) was the total remuneration package.

With 7,300 students, Bath Spa University isn't exactly a large UK university. However, they have been growing. According to their latest financial statement, the university's enrolment has increased by 7%, 29 new academics were appointed, and the institution's before-tax financial surplus sits at £4.5m. What's going to be the lead story for the foreseeable future about Bath Spa University is the part they're now playing in this year's VC pay scandal.

Bath Spa University isn't the only UK institution to be part of the pay controversy. In fact, they aren't the only university in Bath that's looked bad with regards to their VC's pay.

At the University of Bath, the vice-chancellor currently sits atop the VC pay ladder with the highest annual salary (£468,000) of any other university chief executive. Whilst the VC will be stepping down, the university has announced that she will go on sabbatical, receive a full year's worth of pay, and retire in 2019. And, all of this is after receiving a pay rise (British English for a raise) of £17,589 for this academic year. It was a headshakingly bad move by the VC.

Here is my advice for any/all current vice-chancellors and anyone who advises them on major decisions:

Do not be greedy. I completely understand that contractual obligation is oftentimes why VC pay is increased. However, when your pay is under a media microscope, you do not accept a raise. You are paid enough. You politely decline and send those funds towards staff development, student scholarships, facility renovation, etc. In short, those "pay rise" funds should go towards anything that has a positive impact on your institution. You do not accept any more money.

Stop being stubborn at the expense of your university. You make an amazing 6-figure salary. You're not defending university autonomy or academic freedom by adding to your own personal fortune. There are people who lead universities around the world who make a lot more per year than most UK vice-chancellors, but that doesn't make outrageous VC pay acceptable. If you want more money, move to the US. There are plenty of talented leaders in the UK and beyond who will gladly take your place.

Perception and optics are important. Your intentions do not matter. If you are paid £400k per year, you're wealthy. Get over it. Don't sit back behind the ramparts of your university and defend your remuneration package. It's embarrassing and it makes higher education look bad. A lot of the Brexit mess that we're in is due to the portrayal of universities as being where the elite reside. You're not helping when you appear to be sitting on a mountain of sterling. It's astonishingly foolish to brag about your wealth. If you have a yacht and drive a Bentley, keep it to yourself. Focus on funding student success initiatives, hiring more staff, and increasing the overall excellence of your university.

One more thing... If you're at the center of the VC pay controversy, don't go on sabbatical. Just leave and hope that your replacement can undo the reputational damage that you've allowed to fester during your tenure.

And, to the PR teams at these institutions, things will get better once you have a leader who leads with humility and an understanding that the university's purpose matters more than its VC.


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