Don’t blame v-cs for their salaries, says Tom Cut­ter­ham

Don’t blame them for their salaries, it’s the power bal­ance of uni­ver­si­ties that’s at fault, says Tom Cut­ter­ham

THE (Times Higher Education) - - CONTENTS - Tom Cut­ter­ham is a lec­turer in US history at the Univer­sity of Birm­ing­ham.

The re­cent de­bate over vicechan­cel­lors’ 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 that ben­e­fits em­ploy­ers and a con­sumer ex­pe­ri­ence for 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 de­ci­sion­mak­ing. 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 ex­pen- di­tures, 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 whip hand of man­age­ment, staff will get lazy. They will not do good re­search or come up with new teach­ing ideas or con­tin­u­ally push them­selves to im­prove the learn­ing and schol­ar­ship 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 schol­ar­ship?

Ei­ther way, we can­not dis­cuss vicechan­cel­lors’ 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. A pay cut for top brass is nei­ther here nor there with­out chang­ing the power struc­tures that it represents.

The same, of course, is true through­out so­ci­ety. High ex­ec­u­tive pay is part of a deeply hi­er­ar­chi­cal cul­ture of work and man­age­ment; both a symp­tom and a cause of 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.

We might still need v-cs, but bet­ter an aca­demic on sec­ond­ment for a while than a CEO in a chauf­feured Bent­ley

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