Tag Archives: retirement

Adonis takes a scalp?

Let the 28th November 2017 stand as a pivotal moment for UK universities. Phil Baty of the Times Higher tweeted, “So Adonis gets a scalp”. That seemed to over-simplify the circumstances surrounding the retirement, announced that day, of Dame Professor Glynis Breakwell, Vice Chancellor of the University of Bath.

It has been a busy few months for Dame Glynis. As well as sustained pressure in the media from Lord Adonis, the academic staff union members had voted unanimously for a motion of no confidence in the Vice Chancellor. She then narrowly escaped another vote of no confidence in the University’s senate and was facing yet another censure from the students’ union later in the week.

The rebellion had built quickly in response to the findings of a Hefce enquiry into governance issues surrounding determination of senior pay at the University of Bath.   This had been initiated by a complaint from Lord Andrew Adonis in July 2017 in which he criticized what he saw as excessive pay for the Vice Chancellor at £451,000, and the lack of restraint on senior salaries in the face of an appeal for such by the Minister for Higher Education. Additionally, Adonis had reservations about the conduct of the remuneration committee which oversees the vice chancellor’s pay increases, and on which Dame Glynis had exercised her right to vote. He raised additional concerns about governance at the university later in August 2017.

Hefce launched an unprecedented enquiry into the University of Bath case. Unprecedented because I cannot remember a similar instance, and the absence of other cases on Hefce’s regulation and assurance website page seems to confirm this was a new venture for them. Nevertheless, the findings are remarkably fearless; perhaps they were belatedly flexing a muscle in order to assert their independence credentials in advance of their impending abolition. Hefce was not pleased with governance at Bath, finding conflict of interest with regard to the remuneration committee and poor governance practice in aspects of the handling of a University Court meeting, declaring “These issues have, in our view, together resulted in damage to the reputation of the university.” The fact that Dame Glynis was heavily implicated may have sealed her fate.

Arguably, this was only partially Adonis’ scalp. He objected to levels of pay among senior staff, and the circumstances of salary increases, but in fact these had been the subject of protest since 2012 by staff at the university. In the last few months they collated a number of other grievances, and they built alliances with local councillors and local MPs. They also kept the story in the local and national media headlines throughout the summer and autumn. According to a Guardian article, “Junior staff complain of job insecurity caused by short-term or zero-hours contracts, of pay held deliberately low, and a “culture of fear” permeating Bath’s campus”.

So on Tuesday 28th November 2017, it was announced that Dame Glynis had chosen to retire in August 2018. Once again it was felt she had misjudged the changing mood as she will be granted a sabbatical, as I understand it, on full salary and her £31,000 car ‘loan’ will be paid off by the university. It is not a bad package. But many will be asking the question, are vice chancellors worth it? The public perception that they are overpaid has been simmering for several years. Vice chancellors routinely defend their emoluments by maintaining they are possessed of rare and valuable skills, and that they operate in an international market for such expertise. Continued salary competitiveness is essential to ensuring that UK universities remain world class. I have always been sceptical of this line of argument, given that the vast majority of VCs are white, and from the UK, Australia, USA or South Africa. By contrast, at almost any faculty meeting, you would be guaranteed to be sitting among equally distinguished colleagues from a far wider number of countries.

Ironically, it has been revealed that Dame Glynis did not add her voice to claims of exceptional leadership and influence. In a 2010 research article co-authored with Michelle Tytherleigh, entitled ‘University leaders and university performance in the United Kingdom: is it ‘who’ leads, or ‘where’ they lead that matters most?’, they had this to say on the question of whether institutional performance can be related in any way to the characteristics of its leader, “our findings suggest that, whilst the performance of a university may be ‘moulded’ by the characteristics of its’ leader, most of the variability is explained by non-leadership factors”.  I have retained their rogue apostrophe for authenticity.

It is curious that a salary of £450K+ has attracted such opprobrium when there have been higher paid chief executives in recent memory. In 2015, Neil Gorman of Nottingham Trent University topped the league table of salaries with £623,000. It caused such controversy that staff were issued with a script in anticipation of hostile questions at recruitment open days. By contrast, Dame Glynis’ compensation seems almost modest. There were some commentators who suggested that Adonis’ complaints were animated by misogyny and that it was no accident he had targeted a female vice chancellor who just happened to be the most highly paid. A letter in the Guardian on Saturday 25th November from a group of women senior staff offered their support for their vice chancellor, saying “Being a successful woman seems to attract a disproportionate degree of negative criticism”, and enumerating the successes racked up by the University of Bath during Breakwell’s tenure.  A retort from other female staff indicated that such solidarity had not been entirely reciprocated, and identified one of the largest gender pay gaps in the country, as well as wide use of zero hours contracts.

It will be interesting to follow repercussions from these events. I’m sure the rest of the UK’s vice chancellors will be feeling a little unsettled in the following months. The Bath case sends out a signal to the leaders of the marketized and managed universities of the post-Jarratt era that they have had their wings clipped, cards marked, or to use a current favourite managerial metaphor, they are on a burning platform. Their wealth and power has risen as that of their staff has declined. There has been a league table of vice chancellors’ salaries – denounced by academics but embraced as a bargaining benchmark by those chief executives. It seems unlikely that many of them will wish to occupy the top position now. Lord Adonis continues his campaign, one vice chancellor at a time. In a tweet last night (28th November) he seemed to focus his ire on the luckless Vice Chancellor of the University of Southampton. Whatever the outcome of that manoeuvre, I predict that the range of salaries will contract to an average of £230K and will increase slightly below the inflation figure (i.e. in line with other academic salary increases). There will be greater efforts towards transparency and accountability for executive salaries and increases. It now seems politically toxic to do otherwise. As a consequence, we may see a new ethos of intrinsic motivation to lead UK universities for the sake of doing a good job. I hope a new breed of vice chancellors will align themselves more openly with the values of universities as public good and democratic necessity, not as engines of economic competitiveness.

Their rising tide of senior executives post-Jarratt has certainly not lifted all boats. Tenure was abolished in the 1980s. Vice chancellors became chief executives and stifled the influence of academics on university senates. They cut expenditure on pay by employing hourly paid lecturers in posts previously held by full time career academics. They now seem to be presiding over the withdrawal of a final salary pension for staff in the USS pension scheme. So far, only one vice chancellor, Stuart Croft of Warwick, has stated his opposition to this move. This is probably the one benefit that academics will vote to strike for because, for one thing, it makes UK universities attractive and competitive to the best researchers from overseas. It does seem odd to demand decent remuneration packages just for senior management, and not for the people who actually make the universities world-leading.

There is a rising tide though – of resistance from the academic ranks. Just as Bath colleagues take inspiration from the successful campaign against Raising the Bar at Newcastle, others are beginning to organise towards restoring democratic governance in our universities. It is important to remember that it is staff and students who form the ‘core business’ of universities; managers are ancillary ‘overheads’ – and expensive ones. It may be misplaced optimism to say that we are seeing a new dawn in universities, but I am nevertheless hopeful.

I end with the final paragraph from the narrative of events at Bath authored by the President of the UCU branch, Michael Carley.

The position now is that Bath staff and students have concluded that the governing body have learned nothing from the HEFCE report or from the publicity surrounding the Vice-Chancellor’s pay and perks. The campus, students and staff, is more politicized than it has been since the glory days of the 1970s. Questions of governance are being discussed as if they mattered. Staff have spoken openly about the “climate of fear” at the university and are beginning to throw it off.



A reply to Sally Feldman and the ‘forever professors’

This issue has been on my mind for two weeks or so, so I thought I’d better blog about it. On 13th August, Sally Feldman, Senior Fellow in Creative Industries at the University of Westminster, wrote an opinion piece for the Times Higher entitled “It’s not fair to go on forever”. As the title suggests, Feldman is concerned that since the relaxing of compulsory retirement rules in the UK, some academics may wish to prolong their careers after the age of sixty-five. This has been the case in the US since 1994, and Feldman identifies several cases of ‘forever professors’ bonded to their faculty offices because of fear of retirement, or lack of space at home to store books. Feldman claims that one third of academics in the US are now over the age of sixty, and I don’t doubt it – I’m married to one. Meanwhile, she points to a logjam of newly-minted PhDs clamoring for those jobs that the tenured seniors are unwilling to relinquish. This is increasingly likely to be the situation in the UK, she predicts.

I have to say, I don’t believe this will be the case, and even if it were to happen, I don’t support the same kind of cull that Feldman seems to wish for. I outline some humane alternatives at the end of this piece.

In the US, college life has been, until recently, far more comfortable than it has been in the UK for quite some time. Academics probably have more autonomy over what they teach, how they teach it, and at what times they prefer to teach. Expectations of research and scholarship echo more congenial times, and it is assumed that these endeavours primarily serve the needs of the scholar, rather than the financial and league table ambitions of the university. There is no REF (Research Excellence Framework), or TEF (Teaching Excellence Framework). There is no QAA, though most US colleges and universities are taking baby steps towards what they call “assessment”. Significantly, there is little in the way of ‘performance management’, as academics are considered to be self-managing professionals. Furthermore, as my spouse has just reminded me, some of those over-60s are still working because there is no forgiveness of student loans, which continue to be deducted, even from the state pension. Just wait until BIS gets hold of that idea.

But in the UK, it is, of course, precisely the constant conveyor belt of audit, accountability, ranking and standardization which is driving older workers out of university posts. I see no signs of ‘forever professors’, but I am, instead, saddened by the loss of ‘forgotten professors’. This is a lament for friends whose careers have been foreshortened and uncelebrated – victims of what Ros Gill calls the ‘hidden injuries of neo-liberal academia’.

I’m appalled that so many of my retired friends in the UK have left without the courtesy of a leaving party or gift. Sometimes their departure is not even announced at all, and colleagues are left wondering why they haven’t seen so-and-so in a while. To university management, they are expendable ex-employees who are ‘no longer adding value’. One former colleague who wished to extend his service, was asked to put forward a ‘business plan’. One assumes that grant income was a pre-requisite, in an era where professors are expected to earn their own salaries. This incident represents a refusal to acknowledge that an academic is more than an employee of X or Y university; they are members of a community of scholars which ranges beyond that institution. We count our colleagues over continents, not cubicles. Feldman is right to note that our identities are rooted in our contributions to a discipline, as well as to a university, but let’s recognize that to be ejected from that entails a severing of collegial bonds and personal esteem. This is not helped by an unsympathetic HR machine which rescinds your email account and parking privileges the day you retire. One retiree, returning to clear out his office, found himself unable to drive onto campus at all, as his swipe card had already been cancelled. It is ironic, that university administrators who often view themselves as defenders of ‘civility codes’ can fail to recognize when they fall short in this area.

Feldman foregrounds the plight of the next generation of scholars, apparently kept out of careers by the tenacious and tenured. However, her assumption that vacated posts will be replaced by new full time academics is not a well-founded one. Those retirees who opt to take up offers of casual teaching roles will often meet the same young PhDs they thought they had stepped aside for. In the US, 50-75% of faculty are ‘adjuncts’, part-timers, often with PhDs. University managers know that there is a steady supply of hopeful scholars who form a convenient, flexible, acquiescent workforce.

And then there’s the issue of legacy. Many older scholars spend their entire careers building up courses, modules, degree and research programs, only to see these eviscerated without a senior academic protector. Some only stay on to fight the administration in defence of their academic endowments. You will indeed hear these people venting their spleen about universities which seem to be at war with the more critical disciplines in the humanities. It is not, Dr Feldman, because they hate their jobs, rather the opposite. They may, though, hate the finacialized and marketized context in which they are currently asked to perform them, and wish for better conditions to hand down to those young PhDs. This is a noble aspiration, and there should be more room for these repositories of institutional memory and combative example.

Feldman does make some suggestions for a more humane way forward for academics after retirement. Here are some more:

  • Hold a retirement party and make sure someone makes a speech celebrating the person’s career. And get HR to cough up a decent amount for the gift pot.
  • Don’t cancel their email account, unless they request that. It helps to stay in touch, at least for a few years.
  • Invite retirees to talks and events within their area of interest, and to retirements and inaugurals in the department.
  • Invite retirees to speak on their research, or deliver one-off lectures to undergraduates and postgraduates.
  • Invite retirees to continue PhD supervisions.

Most importantly, I would like to see universities – managers and academics – re-cast retirees as an asset, not a liability. Please let us treat older workers as we ourselves one day would hope to be treated.