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The business of education

The model of having an overpaid class of ‘high-level managers’ is destroying the ethos of British universities

The business of education
Bath University whose VC was the highest paid in the UK.

Dear All,

Recent reports concerning university pay in Britain have once again highlighted the changing nature of these educational institutions. What has changed is not just the fact that university fees have been raised to crippling levels for students but also the way these universities now seem to perceive and define themselves.

Before tuition fees were raised (from no fees to £1000 annually for home students in 1998, then £3000 a few years later and then tripled to £9000 in 2012), the whole argument one heard for this was that more investment was needed into academia — into both funding research and hiring and retaining the best minds in the business.

Several years and many millions of pounds later what we see in British universities is not groundbreaking research and inspired teaching but the sort of problems you might encounter in a private limited company whose raison d’etre was not knowledge and learning but rather profit and exploitation.

What is surely objectionable is allowing the existence of a certain group merely because they claim to be ‘super managers’, when in fact the only thing they are really managing is their own interests, perks and careers.

Several recent scandals regarding the pay and perks of university vice chancellors illustrate this clearly. The vice chancellor of Bath University for example was discovered to be the highest paid VC in the UK — on a salary of £468,000 (for no reason that most people could comprehend). After sustained protests by the students she finally agreed to step down but not without trying to resist demands for her resignation and trying to argue it was nothing unusual about the head of a (middle level) university being paid such an exorbitant salary.

Apparently, it was indeed a sort of a trend: a Channel 4 investigation revealed last month that while university lecturers were striking over cuts to their pensions, vice chancellors were enjoying ‘first class travel, five star hotel stays’ and lavish expense accounts.

The Channel 4 ‘Dispatches’ programme discovered that “the country’s vice-chancellors and their senior colleagues claimed almost £8m in expenses over the last two years”.

This included one university even spending £1600 to have its new vice chancellor’s dog relocated from Australia. Meanwhile, the vice chancellor of the University of the West of England (I’m not sure if you’ve ever heard of it before) claimed £43,000 in expenses, including £10,000 on executive cars with a firm that describes itself as “the premier chauffeur service in Bristol and the south-west.”

The programme was shocking because it revealed vice chancellors and senior staff behaving like executives of banks or multinationals: spending obscene amounts on food and travel and 5-star perks on the basis that they were ‘worth it’. How exactly their first class travel or expense accounts were benefitting either their faculty or their students was unclear, the general argument seemed to be that as top dog they were doing what top dogs do…

A subsequent report in The Guardian on vice chancellors at British universities being paid far more than their counterparts in the public sector as “an analysis of the salaries of vice-chancellors at leading universities shows they are paid well above chief executives of hospital trusts and local authorities running similarly sized, or in many cases larger, public institutions in a number of cities in England.”

All of this has reignited the debate not just about vice-chancellors’ pay but about the institutions’ priorities: while VCs spend like investment bankers or management consultants, students are struggling with crippling debt and unsatisfactory teaching, and lecturers are struggling to make ends meet. After all, a university is not a company or a business and is surely much, much more than merely the sum of its financially quantifiable parts.

But alas, what is happening in university education in the UK is very similar to what is happening in organisations across the world: it’s part of that great con job that ‘managers’ or ‘management experts’ are somehow a superior breed — a cadre that merits super salaries and super perks no matter what the aim or mission of their organisation might be.

This disease has now spread into the public sector in an uncontrolled manner so that today ‘managers’ will often earn more than health professionals or war correspondents merely because they are doing the job of ‘senior management’.

The job that will probably, many of us might comment cynically, include repeatedly re-inventing the wheel (to bolster up their own CVs), and hiring expensive media consultants to ‘create strategies’ or bringing in overpriced motivational consultants to oversee ‘team building exercises’.

There is no harm in paying people who deliver on targets and benefit their organisation and staff. What is surely objectionable is allowing the existence of a certain group merely because they claim to be ‘super managers’, when in fact the only thing they are really managing is their own interests, perks and careers.

Best wishes

Umber Khairi

The author is a former BBC broadcaster and producer, and one of the founding editors of Newsline.

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