Fat cats or in it together? Vice Chancellors’ salaries in the recession

How are Vice Chancellors’ salaries holding up at a time when universities have made far-reaching savings? I’m interested in the way that senior managers in the public sector are separating themselves out from the mass of the public sector workforce, and earnings are the simplest way of examining this. So I checked on the universities of Yorkshire – England’s largest county, with a population only slightly smaller than that of Scotland or Denmark.

I looked at the financial reports for 2007-8 and 2011-12 of nine universities between the Tees and the Hull. Two more universities have yet to post financial reports for 2011-12 and were excluded, along with Bradford College and two very small specialist institutions. I’ll update this blog when the finance officers of Sheffield Hallam and Huddersfield post their accounts, but overall this gives us a clear enough picture of trends.

The broad pattern is that while some VCs enjoyed rises well above the rate of inflation, they are a minority, and two have taken a cut.  Across Yorkshire, VC salaries have risen, but at a level – 13.5% over five years – that looks rather modest.

This average, of course, hides much variation. Leeds Trinity University’s top salary rose by nearly 27%, admittedly from a relatively low base; from a much higher base, the University of Sheffield rewarded its Vice Chancellor (who also received a New Year knighthood) with a rise of 36.5%.

At the other end of the scale, the VC’s salary at Bradford fell by 4%, while at Leeds Metropolitan University the drop has been a remarkable 11.2%. Susan Price has headed Leeds Metropolitan University since 2010, since when the University has frozen all senior management salaries, partly with the aim of setting an example to their colleagues.

There is also a relatively modest rise in the number of other university staff who earn above £100,000. One average, their number rose by 11.4% over the five years. Their numbers fell at Hull and Bradford, and rose slightly at Sheffield and Leeds. Most of the growth came at York, which is probably an effect of NHS salaries in its medical school.

What can we conclude from this mixed picture? I can’t see any evidence that VCs as a group think that ‘we’re all in this together’, nor that they have at present the will or capacity to lead by example. Some seem unaffected by political concern with senior management salaries in the public sector, as evidenced in the Treasury’s 2011 Hutton Report.  At a time when university budgets are being squeezed, only one VC in this major English region has held out against the tendency for VCs to increase the gap between their incomes and those of their staff. 

But in Yorkshire at least, most VCs don’t resemble the ‘fat cats’ of popular mythology. Most have settled, at a time of crisis in both the public and private sectors, and widespread cuts for other public sector workers, for a small but steady rise in their salaries. Will this continue once the new tuition fees bed in? I am inclined to doubt it: the new fees regime will encourage those who believe that universities are not really public services any longer, and who compare their rewards with the silly salaries of bankers rather than the more modest incomes of lecturers or lab technicians.

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