Tag Archives: vice chancellors

VC Question Time

The Times Higher held an event in London this afternoon. Billed as THE Live  it seemed designed to be a convivial and informative warm up event for the real thing – a gala evening of THE Awards to be presented by Sandy Toksvig. An array of vice chancellors – I believe the collective noun is a wedge – volunteered themselves to be grilled by John Gill, Editor of the Times Higher in a VC Question Time format. They were Chris Day, Newcastle University; Anthony Forster, University of Essex; Pamela Gillies, Glasgow Caledonian University; and Edward Peck, Nottingham Trent University.

THE Live #VCquestiontime was, in sad contradiction, rather lifeless. For one thing, there was no live stream, so I’m not sure what was supposed to be ‘live’ about it. The tweeting was hardly prolific, but there was enough to get a sense of the tenor of the session. My thanks go Mary Curnock Cook, HEPI and Sarah Custer for their live tweeting.

The Times Higher had been actively inviting questions on Twitter from the UK higher education community for a few days. And academics and administrators supplied plenty of tough ones, commenting that they never usually had the occasion to interrogate their leaders.

So it was disappointing to see how searching and sometimes acerbic questions had been tamed towards the inoffensive. For instance, “How do you sleep at night knowing that your grotesquely inflated salary is directly related to the rise of precarious labour?” was reiterated as “What keeps you awake at night?” And “how could you have responded differently to the VCs’ pay furore” framed the issue as one of PR, not one of attempting to justify large pay rises while requiring restraint of ordinary staff. Questions about the adverse conditions of academic careers and workplaces, and poor incentives for the next generation to become academics, appeared to be domesticated into “would you tell your children to become an academic?” This vision of academic life from University of Essex VC, Anthony Forster, stands in rather stark contrast to the experience conveyed by some questioners:  “noble work, should get us out of bed every day of the week, with a spring in our step, transmission of knowledge, creation of new research that will make the world a better place.”

One or two highlights, though. I laughed out loud at Pamela Gillies comment: “Politicians are not going to let universities go under, not in the real world.” That won’t age well, I predict. And I warmed slightly to Anthony Forster who offered an unvarnished opinion about Universities UK saying, ” Sector leadership is not fit for purpose”, calling for reform of @UniversitiesUK to become voice of Universities rather than voice of vice-chancellors. Nice one.

But all in all my impression was that the questions posed in the VC Question Time session failed to capture the intent of those which had been posted on Twitter. Instead, questions were posed which allowed the panel members to construct a rosy and optimistic narrative. Little which implied criticism of VCs’ own behaviour was asked, including my personal favourite: “How destructive and immoral would a government proposal for HE have to be before you’d risk your chance of a gong to oppose it”. From what I could discern, nothing was asked in several areas which had predominated on Twitter: casualization of the workforce, pensions and the recent strike, staff pay, and academic workloads. For all their talk about staff needing to be pushed beyond their comfort zone, university leaders appear reluctant to step outside of theirs.

 

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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.

 

Answers to the Vice Chancellors’ Annual Quiz 2016

Happy New Year. Here are the answers to the 25 questions I posted on 13th December. Nobody attempted all of them, so the prize remains unclaimed. I will, though, offer a commendation to Michael Carley – clearly a promising VC-fancier.

Which vice-chancellor, principal or provost (and one ex):

  1. Raised the bar for academic staff….and then lowered it again? [Chris Brink, Newcastle University]
  2. Rejected government calls for universities to sponsor schools, saying it would be ‘a distraction from our core mission’? [Louise Richardson, University of Oxford]
  3. Told a meeting of ECRs “we have no security to offer you. It is so easy for us to replace you”? [Michael Arthur, UCL]
  4. Criticised university leaders for being too wedded to outdated notions of the heroic in leadership, and acting like Zeus not Athena? [Janet Beer, University of Liverpool]
  5. Caused controversy by saying “society doesn’t need a 21-year-old who is a sixth century historian”. [Patrick Johnston, Queen’s University Belfast]
  6. Reportedly added £2 worth of biscuits to a £20,000 expenses bill? [Dame Glynis Breakwell, University of Bath]
  7. Lost a no-confidence vote by staff after unpopular cost-cutting measures. [David Bell, University of Reading, or Peter Horrocks, Open University]
  8. Was knighted in 2016? [Sir Paul Curran, City University London]
  9. Did the mannequin challenge at the graduation ceremony? [Jane Harrington, University of the West of England]
  10. Said “great teaching is not inconsistent with academic freedom, it depends on it”? [Sir Keith Burnett, University of Sheffield]
  11. Has been appointed Chair of the TEF? [Chris Husbands, Sheffield Hallam University]
  12. Said the TEF is ‘a further safeguard for students, one that has now been largely accepted by the sector’? [Edward Peck, Nottingham Trent University]
  13. Does the open day talk for the mathematics course at their university? [Alistair Fitt, Oxford Brookes University]
  14. Said Brexit is “the catalyst we all need”? [Sir David Greenaway, University of Nottingham]
  15. Was the most recent VC to appear on Desert Island Discs? [Louise Richardson, University of Oxford]
  16. Is the UK’s longest-serving VC? [John Cater, Edge Hill University]
  17. Heads the league table for spending on air fares among VCs in Wales? [Colin Riordan, Cardiff University]
  18. Born in Germany, moved to Ireland, back to Germany, back to Ireland, to England, back to Ireland and now in Scotland. Best known for his report on governance in Scottish HE. [Ferdinand Von Prondzynski, Robert Gordon University]
  19. Is the most highly ranked VC on the Wonkhe HE Power List 2016? [Sir Leszek Borysiewicz, University of Cambridge]
  20. Said, “Professors are really like small business owners”? [Alice Gast, Imperial College]
  21. Dressed up as Bonnie Tyler for a charity fund raiser? [Dominic Shellard, De Montfort University]
  22. Used to be a van driver, and once crowd surfed among his students? [Nick Petford, University of Northampton]
  23. Was reportedly once housed in a homeless hostel? [Mary Stuart, University of Lincoln]
  24. Spent £95,000 on a set of ceremonial chairs? [Wendy Purcell, Ex-VC Plymouth University]
  25. The answer is Professor Sir Steve Smith, University of Exeter. Suggested questions in comments please. [Disappointingly, there were no suggested questions. But just who is that Santa sipping a marguerita in the photo above?]

More next year, so be good in 2017, vice-chancellors. Be very good.