Concerns over lack of transparency in decisions by the University of Bath’s remuneration committee (“Bath governance under scrutiny”, News, 24 August), reminded me of discussions at Plymouth University six years ago. On 22 January 2011, The Daily Telegraph ran a story headlined “Row over hike in vicechancellors’ pay”, which reported increases of up to one-fifth “just weeks after ministers backed plans to triple the cap on student tuition fees from just over £3,000 to £9,000 a year”.
The report said: “The biggest salary increase was at Plymouth, which had to cut 220 staff in autumn 2008 in a bid to reduce overspending. Its vice-chancellor, Wendy Purcell, was awarded a 20 per cent raise less than a year later, and is now paid £283,000.” By 2011, I was an academic staff member on the board of governors at Plymouth, but in 2008 I had led trade union negotiations on the redundancies. I was not alone in being shocked.
On 26 January, a spokesperson for the board of governors sought to justify the decision, telling staff and local media: “The board’s decision brought the vicechancellor’s salary in line with the sector and is in recognition of exemplary leadership.”
The next day, I wrote to all board members, including the vice-chancellor, to register my concerns at this response. I still recall my feelings as my finger hovered over the “send” button, considering the effect it might have on my future. But as I explained, “the focus is primarily on the procedural issues for which all of us on the board must share a responsibility”. I wrote: “The determination of senior salaries is a sensitive issue, and in today’s economic climate it becomes even more important to ensure that objective criteria are used in all decisions. More than that, I believe that this must be done in a way that is open and transparent, and I do not believe current procedures achieve this.”
As Tom Cutterham argues, there is a bigger issue of hierarchical work relations involved (“V-c pay reflects the culture”, Opinion, 24 August), but a starting point would be openness of remuneration committees.
In 2015-16, in response to a Freedom of Information request from the University and College Union, three-quarters of universities refused to provide unredacted minutes of remuneration committees’ meetings. This is an issue for the sector, as institutions are unlikely to address it alone.
Associate professor (senior lecturer) in sociology, Plymouth University