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Stop scapegoating vice-chancellors over pay, urges report


Hepi paper argues UK university leaders’ salaries lag behind those in other countries

Better communicating the complexity of university leadership could help end the “witch hunt” over vice-chancellors’ pay levels, according to a Higher Education Policy Institute report.

Published on 31 August, the report argues that vice-chancellor pay “is not a Wild West but determined carefully by remuneration committees”. It concludes that university leaders are remunerated less than leaders of private sector companies with similar revenue.

In 2022, the top three highest-earning UK vice-chancellors received £714,000, £542,000 and £539,000, while in 2021 the average remuneration was £269,000, according to the report.

It says that UK vice-chancellors earn less than their equivalents both in the US, where vice-chancellors earned up to $2,509,687 (£1,966,274) a year in 2022, and in Australia, where they earned up to AUD $1,515,000 (£792,700) in 2021.

The report claims that repetition of a “mantra” about the need for vice-chancellor pay restraint among politicians, unions, the media and the regulator “is potentially dangerous for the higher education sector” and could reduce the talent pool of people applying for such roles.

“Every vice-chancellor I have met in over a decade of working with universities has been impressive,” said Lucy Haire, director of partnerships at Hepi and the author of the report. “The range and complexity of their impactful work, the challenges they face, and especially the relentlessly public-facing nature of the role, deserve a lot of credit.”

Anger and injustice

However, Jo Grady, general secretary of the University and College Union, said any suggestion that the widespread condemnation of spiralling vice-chancellor pay was “a product of confected outrage by unions” would “seriously underestimate the level of anger this glaring injustice demands”.

“University staff have repeatedly been told that the cupboard is bare while watching their leaders hit the headlines because of bumper pay increases,” Grady said. “A fairer system would see vice-chancellors’ salaries indexed to wider pay in the sector, at a level that reflects the fact that all university staff—not just those at the top—are crucial to the sector’s success.”

The report makes several recommendations to universities that could help alleviate what the paper calls a political and media “witch hunt”. They include that the sector should “redouble efforts to ensure a better awareness of the scope, scale and complexity of higher education leaders’ roles, such that the negative rhetoric about high pay is dialled down and the witch hunts cease.”

“While pay should never be the only focus of those who lead educational and research institutions, it should also never be a barrier to attracting the very best,” said Haire. “Paying leaders substantial pay packages does not preclude reviewing low pay and poor terms and conditions elsewhere in the sector. It is not a zero-sum game, nor a race to the bottom.”