Our glorious leaders!

There has been a lot of media interest today in Stephen Hester’s decision to not take his ~ £1 million bonus. I think this is largely good news, although I do accept that acting to only stop larges bonuses at RBS, without doing the same for the rest of the sector, may ultimately be quite risky. This did, however, remind me that I was wanting to write about a related topic; the salaries of the principals of some of the UK’s top Universities.

As reported in the Guardian, the average annual salary for the principals of 13 of the Russell Group universities (including Oxford, Cambridge, Birmingham, Edinburgh, Leeds, Nottingham, Bristol and Southampton) was £333000 with an average rise in 2011 of 3.6%. Not only do I think that such a rise – given that the rest of us are getting 1% or less – is objectionable, I think an average of £333000 is obscene.

The argument is that these salaries are necessary so as to attract the best. Here’s one of the problems I have with this argument. The minimum salary for a Professor today is about £60k. If you are genuinely high-profile and world-leading you can negotiate a higher salary, but I’d be surprised if many can negotiate anything more than about £100k. University principals therefore work in a sector where truly world-class researchers and educators might be able to earn £100k per year, and they feel that they deserve £300k or more. I have no real problem with university principals earning more than top Professors but I do have a problem with them earning something like 3 times a top Professor’s salary.

The other issue I have is related to the idea that we need to pay these salaries to attract the best. As far as I can tell most of these senior people come from within the Higher Education sector. Where did we attract them from? We certainly didn’t attract many from outside academia (and I would be quite concerned if we did). Some might even have been quite good researchers, but clearly they preferred being in management than doing active research, so probably weren’t potential Nobel Laureates. I’m also starting to encounter people at the same kind of level as I am, who appear to be angling for these kind of positions. Some are quite good at administration and management, but none seem particularly brilliant. They also seem worryingly self-assured and have no shortage of ego.

I’ve also encountered a number of senior university people and although they seem perfectly decent, I’ve never been especially impressed. There are a couple that I’ve found quite inspiring, but not many. What is more concerning is that I’m becoming more directly aware of decisions that these people are making that seem extremely ill-informed. I sat through a series of meetings late last year in which a number of such decisions were discussed and, in all the meetings, there was a general consensus that these decisions didn’t make sense, but there was little that could be done. These were also quite high-level meetings and the idea that relatively senior academics (I’m not one of them) had very little influence on University management decisions was extremely concerning.

Essentially, given that most university principals and vice-principals are academics who have chosen management over research and teaching, there seems no obvious reason to pay them exorbitant salaries. What were their options? They were unlikely to be head-hunted to become captains of industry. What is more, the management – at my institution at least – seem remarkably disconnected from the day-to-day running of the university. I suspect that this is partly due to the high salaries. They now see themselves as more important than, or somehow different to, the average academic. Furthermore, it also seems as though these high salaries mean that they need to be seen to be making decisions, even if most of the university community disagree with what’s been decided. If they needed lowly academics to give them advise, why would we need to pay them such high salaries.

Overall, I think such high salaries are completely unnecessary. Also, in my opinion at least, paying such high salaries to senior university management could actually be fundamentally damaging to the HE sector as these senior managers no longer identify with typical academics and researchers, and seem to regularly make decisions the logic of which many do not understand.

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