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The real scandal of rising salaries for university vice-chancellors

Salaries for university managers are rising, and both ministers and the media are outraged. Don’t join them. This concocted hysteria gives hypocrisy a good name.

For months, Vince Cable and David Willetts have been targeting “excessive” pay at universities. Practically the first thing Cable did on joining the Cabinet was to accuse VCs of being “out of step with reality” on the issue.

Cable said in May, “I was very taken aback to discover that last year the pay of vice-chancellors rose by over 10 per cent in the middle of a financial crisis…. We want to signal to them that there has got to be some restraint.” He and Willetts then wrote to all VCs.

This campaign has found willing footsoldiers in the media. On Friday, the Telegraph reported that pay for vice-chancellors rose by as much as 20 per cent last year. Peter Preston, the former editor of the Guardian, weighed in this morning with a column of snide sniping.

Its all bogus. Higher education is in turmoil. Universities face huge new uncertainties that strike at the heart of their financial viability. They are obliged to respond.

At the moment, much of the uncertainty is politicial. For example – and there are many others – the government has yet to say how it will ration students and the loans that pay for their tuition fees. Depending on how that is resolved, universities face huge swings in their income from undergraduates.

The government intends to push through new legislation later this year that will resolve these political questions. But that will not be the end of the uncertainties. For ministers intend to entrench uncertainty in the system. There is to be a market in undergraduates, universities are to be asked to compete and the failures will be allowed to go bankrupt. In any case, the scale of the revolution means the governments plans may easily fail.

Academia in Britain has been a kind of self-managing entity. It really does have an establishment, traditionally composed of academics. But the governments objective is to sweep all that away.

What this all adds up to is a huge increase in the risks faced by universities. These range from merely rapid decline to catastrophic failure. Success in this new environment will depend on good lobbying and effective handling of the flood of new regulations and dynamics that are coming into play.

In a specially deluded phrase, Preston says “universities are communities of learning not merchant banks” as if they can remain immune to the tide of commercialism that ministers are dunking them in. But any university that thinks it can go on as before is being reckless. The new world that ministers are creating has to be tackled head on.

And all that can only mean one thing – more management and more managers. This is the one discipline in every university that is guaranteed to expand in the coming years.

There will be many ramifications to the switch from a self-managing to a managed system. But one of the most obvious is that the managers will become more highly paid. And the more like companies universities become as they respond to the market ministers are creating, the higher those salaries will go.

In this context, to rail against the average 8 per cent rise in the salaries of senior university managers that the Telegraph uncovered is ludicrous. The true outrage is for the government, egged on by the Telegraph, to create the conditions in which higher salaries for managers are inevitable and then to complain about them. That shows a total unwillingness to take responsibility for the consequences of your actions and, in the words of the Telegraph, an “arrogant disregard” for the intelligence of the public.