How far should universities go to avoid engaging with their local communities?


A senior member of a major British adult education provider told me last week that he was disappointed by the higher education sector, finding it aloof and unresponsive. This had not always been his experience, so he was wondering whether I thought the universities were now out of the adult learning field altogether. His view was that this was largely caused by research assessment regimes, which have rewarded academics who impress other academics, while discouraging any wider engagement in the community.

This is probably a reasonable indictment of the old Research Assessment Exercise. Or, more accurately, it is a fair description of how many academics and their managers chose to respond to the old RAE. Nor is this simply a British phenomenon. In many countries, academic research is measured either by the numbers of times that their work is cited by other academics, or by the number of papers that they publish in journals that are highly regarded by other academics.

This is even worse than the old RAE. It leads to entirely predictable games-playing, as academics are clever folk who will devise the most effective ways of achieving high citations, or getting into those highly-rated journals.  Governments appear to be satisfied with this, as they invariably either boast about the number of “our scientists” who perform well on this measure, or berate their nation’s scholars for failing to measure up. But whichever system was used, the result has been to turn academics inwards, encouraging them to speak above all to their own peers, and to ignore the wider community (with the obvious exception of those organisations who pay for and commission various commercially driven projects).

This seems to me entirely counter-productive. If we cannot explain our research to the wider community, and justify it to the public, then we cannot expect our research to command public support. Rather, we should expect much of the public to mistrust academics, viewing them either as self-indulgent and wildly out of touch, or as in the pay of large vested interests. Over time, this is bound to undermine the political consensus in favour of publicly funded academic research.

I am therefore moderately encouraged by a number of recent developments. The first is the inclusion of ‘impact’ in the new research assessment system. This requires academics to show that high quality research has in some way influenced the wider public, and has had benefits for them. This will explicitly include the measurement of impact on civil society and third sector organisations as well as on the public and private sectors. This is certainly not without its problems – not the least of which is that the sector has limited experience of assessing the impact of research on people who are not other academics. But it is a step in the right direction.

The second is the decision of several universities to appoint professors specialising in the public understanding of science. Marcus du Sautoy is probably the best known of these, thanks to his broadcasting collaboration with the comedian Dara O’Briain. Sheffield has gone a step further, appointing Angie Hobbs as professor in the public understanding of philosophy. Again, this seems to me to be a sensible decision by those universities that are far-sighted enough to recognise that an informed public opinion is in their long term interests as much as anybody’s.

The third is the growing willingness of academic researchers to engage with those who criticise and protest against their work. In the most recent case, scientists at Rothamsted Institute of Arable Crops Research offered to meet a direct action group of anti-GM protesters to discuss their concerns. The protesters in turn called for an open debate, which the two sides are now arranging. It is unlikely that this dialogue will resolve all the differences, which run deep, but it is a world away from the violent police-led responses of the past.

These are welcome developments, though it probably goes without saying that I’d like to see them become the norm rather than the exception. If universities are public institutions then why would they not expect all of their researchers to promote public understanding of their work? Perhaps it should be a requirement of all public research funding that the researchers should be willing to communicate their findings to the local community, and indeed listen to what the community thinks of it.


Lifelong learning and corruption: why we need a new ethics of public service

Recently, a number of education and training providers have found themselves in the headlines for the wrong reasons. Fraud allegations are hitting a growing number of providers, from private training companies to universities. Of course, most of us manage to do our jobs without taking bribes, cooking the books, or pilfering more than the odd paper clip. Yet if we are not on the edge of a crisis, we soon will be; it is only a matter of time before the sheer scale and extent of the allegations start to undermine the foundations of public confidence in the education and training system.

One response to the allegations is to blame reporters and the media. Twenty years ago, perhaps such stories would have been quietly strangled at birth. Now, competition for readers’ and viewers’ attention is so ferocious that only the most gory scandal-mongering and controversy can hope to maintain audience figures. Still, you wouldn’t have thought so if you had been following the apprenticeships story – the Sheffield press, as well as the BBC and other Yorkshire media, were notably behind the game in asking tough questions of the city’s fourth largest company.

But I cannot believe that it is only the media who are responsible for bringing tales of corruption into the light of day. It seems to me that something has changed in the behaviour and values of those who lead the provider organisations. Let’s not blame journalists for reporting the nasty smell that is coming from the shadier corners of our lifelong learning system. Instead, we should try to identify the background causes of the stink, and then decide how to get rid of it.

Much of the problem lies with the paradoxical processes of deregulation and marketisation of education and training. These are paradoxical because they involve both an attempt by government to apply the disciplines of the market to lifelong learning, and the imposition of mechanisms that seek to maintain a degree of public accountability. Hence the paradox: these are at best managed markets. And the more complex the arrangements for accountability are, and the more stable doors they try to close, the less it is possible to exercise simple and transparent oversight, and the more there are unplanned loopholes and cracks in the system.

The shift towards output-based funding, and the opening up of learning programmes to private and voluntary providers, illustrate this process. Some recent examples:

  • A4e, a large recruitment agency and welfare-to-work provider, is under investigation by the police for allegedly claiming funding for placing people in non-existent jobs.
  • Eight staff from training providers in Nottingham were jailed in January after forging documents to falsely claim students at two colleges had completed courses.
  • Reporters for the BBC’s Panorama programme claimed that that paperwork has been forged to claim funding for apprenticeship training.
  • A community college in Liverpool was told to repay £80,000 after bogus employer references were provided for students to gain funding from the European Social Fund.
  • London Metropolitan University had to refund £36.5m paid to it on flawed completion figures – flawed, of course, in the institution’s favour.

Ironically, in September 2011, the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills announced with great fanfares that it was launching an ‘action plan for cutting red tape for employers’ who were taking on apprentices. This was after Geoff Russell, chief executive of the skills funding agency, wrote to John Hayes, the FE and Skills Minister, warning that sub-contracting was already responsible for well over half the misuse and abuse of public training funds.

These problems are greater in the private sector (which includes a number of voluntary sector providers). In its report on Adult Apprenticeships, the National Audit Office calculated that the value of flawed funding claims across the entire Apprenticeship Programme was 0.8 per cent. This was lower than the 1.1 per cent on Train to Gain, but above the 0.6 per cent for adult further education.

Yet we should not ignore signs of unethical behaviour in the public sector as well. Several college principals have got into hot water for employing their spouses and children in senior positions. One Welsh university has been negotiating with discredited recruitment company A4e over validation of its awards. The University of Wales got into repeated trouble over the quality of its accredited courses, as well as allegations of visa-rigging at some of its partner institutions. And the director of adult learning and marketing co-ordinator at Shropshire Learning and Skills Council were jailed in 2010 for their part in a bribery scam.

League tables are often associated with changing behaviour, and higher education is no exception. There have been allegations that staff try to influence responses in the National Student Survey. And the British Medical Journal announced in January that as many as one in eight scientists responding to its survey had witnessed a colleague fabricating or altering research data prior to publication in peer-reviewed journals.

And, just like the main political parties, universities are increasingly dependent on donors. The incoming director of the London School of Economics has to overcome the damage done by the scandal of Saif al-Islam Gaddhafi’s doctoral thesis, as well as the institution’s track record of securing contracts and donations from a range of unsavoury businessmen and dictators. Elsewhere, the Serious Fraud Office is investigating claims that a businessman helped arrange a prestigious university place for a Vietnamese student in order to land a contract.

Even in the most honest of institutions, the honorary degree system increasingly resembles a peerage system administered by David Lloyd George. Why on earth would anyone – let alone a small university in Scotland – think of awarding an honorary doctorate to Donald Trump? That this question more or less answers itself is itself a telling indicator of changing values at the top of higher education.

There are, then, good reasons why unethical behaviour of various kinds has become more common. Of course, none of these factors can excuse corruption, although they may help to explain why it has become more prevalent. Ultimately, though, this has to come back to purpose and values. We could simply let the lifelong learning system move over to the market place, and leave malpractice and corruption to the law. And we could include fraud awareness classes in our national school curriculum.

Or we can act on the belief that education and training can be good public services. These are services which help build public value, and which embrace the civil society that has nurtured and cherished them. We need to celebrate the idea of public service, and cheer on those who exemplify it, rather than treating it as something shameful. Meanwhile, hats off to the small magazine FE Week for its tenacity and courage in keeping investigative journalism alive.


Top salaries have been in the news lately. As well as all the kerfuffle about bankers and railway company directors, we’ve also seen evidence of more serious and informed concerns about what we – as a society – pay our ‘top people’. This debate has generated more heat and hyperbole than light and reason. It also carries more than a whiff of hypocrisy, particularly when we start to touch on public sector salaries. At the bottom and middle of most organisations, it seems reasonable to suppose that a skilled and committed workforce, providing good and reliable services, should be paid as well as anyone else who is making a similar contribution. That can probably be agreed by everyone but the most radical anti-State ideologues. But what about those who lead public services?

This issue was recently considered by the Scottish Government’s review of university governance. Chaired by Ferdinand von Prondzynski, principal of Robert Gordon University, the panel made a number of recommendations, some more controversial than others. One of its members made public his disagreement with some key recommendations on including trade union representation in governing bodies, and subjecting the chairs of governing bodies to election. Rather less attention has been paid to its recommendations on the appointment and remuneration of university principals.

Of course, pay and recruitment are closely linked. Salaries are determined, so far as principals are concerned, by each university’s own remunerations committee. While their deliberations are invariably secret, the committee members do take the market into account, and increasingly so as individuals from the world of business have come to dominate governing bodies. I cannot be alone in having heard one committee chair describe the university principal’s salary as ‘peanuts’ compared with the earnings of chief executives in the private sector. And I suspect that many university principals do regard themselves as comparable with top business leaders, not only in the responsibilities they exercise, but even in the way that their university has to behave ever more entrepreneurially.  After all, our expanded higher education system has grown at a much faster rate than the government grant, even before the cuts set in. Someone has to pay the bills, and it is less and less likely to be the funding council.

But universities are still not private companies. The review of university governance took a clear stance on what universities do, and where they sit in the range of large and important institutions. Its report starts by reminding its readers that universities in Scotland are public bodies who carry out a public role. So far as principals are concerned, the report calls for greater transparency and wider participation in appointment and appraisal. It also calls for principals to enjoy pay rises no greater than those awarded for all staff until existing processes have been reviewed, and for remuneration committees to include staff and student members. It also suggested that SFC should ask universities what they make of Will Hutton’s report on fair pay in the public sector. Hutton’s report was commissioned by the Treasury. Like all good reports, his core recommendations were few in number and easily understood. He proposed that top salaries should visibly reflect the principle of fairness, first in visibly being linked to ‘just desert’ (or performance), and second in publishing the ratio between top pay and the average earnings in their organisation.

These changes, modest and achievable though they are, may or may not be implemented. In its initial response to the review, Universities Scotland delicately avoided the question of its own members’ salaries and appointments, and described the Prondzynski report’s many recommendations as ‘complex’ (even if it is, which it isn’t, this tempts me to ponder what a committee of principals ought to be able to handle). Assuming that the Scottish Government will be reluctant to pick a fight with university heads in advance of an independence referendum, I am expecting a deal of sugar and water to be poured on the Prondzynski report in general, and its proposals for top pay in particular.

Even if it were implemented tomorrow, though, I don’t see the report as entering fat cat territory. Nor was this their concern. On the contrary: the panel emphasised that their main concern was over public perceptions of principals’ salaries, which have produced a controversy that ‘has not helped engender trust in governance’. So let’s now take a look at what the principals are paid, and how that compares with others.

My estimates are based on data from sixteen HEIs; three (Glasgow School of Art, Heriot-Watt, the Royal Conservatoire) had not filed their accounts at time of writing, and I have excluded the Open University, as it is a UK-wide provider, although it has a Scottish director.

In the most recent financial year, the average annual salary for a principal in Scotland came to almost £243,000. They ranged between Aberdeen at the top (£335,000) and Edinburgh College of Arts (£144,000) at the bottom. These salaries are nowhere near the top earnings in the private sector, though they would make owner-managers in small firms green with envy. On the other hand, all of the principals of Scottish universities are better paid than the Lord Advocate or Director of the Scotland Office; assuming Heriot-Watt’s principal has not had a drop in salary since 2009-10, then at least sixteen are better paid than the First Minister (or, indeed, David Cameron).

How fast have these salaries been growing? The Prondzynski review notes ‘signs that increases . . . have been modified or halted since the onset of the recession in 2008-9’. This claim is relatively easy to test. Over the four years since 2007-8, principals’ salaries have risen by an average of 11.4%. All sixteen enjoyed an increase, ranging from just over 2% at Dundee and Stirling to almost 31% at Aberdeen. We should, though, remember that a number of experienced principals have retired over this period, and that nothing stopped governing bodies from recruiting a new incumbent, who lacked the experience and track record of their predecessor, at a lower salary.

An average rise of just over 11% is not remarkable in itself. It is well below the level of inflation; and if the rises have certainly not been halted, the rate of increase seems relatively modest. So the scary headline figures about principals’ salary increases are probably based on a small number of rather exceptional cases, such as Aberdeen. Many university staff will point out that their salaries have been frozen for much of this time, but this is not true of all university staff. The number of Scottish academics earning over £100,000 per annum has risen year on year over this period, a feature of our system that I will discuss in a later blog. On the other hand, middle and lower level earnings in universities have stagnated.

What do these figures tell us about the salaries overall? First, they tell us that university principals are very well paid by public sector standards. I find it quite extraordinary that all of Scotland’s top public salaries are held by university principals. Second, principals are unlikely to perform well on one of Hutton’s key tests of fair pay. The average principal’s salary of £242,800 is well over nine times the figure of £26,200 that the Office for National Statistics reports as the median gross annual earnings of full-time employees in the UK. Third, they tell us that different universities, and principals, behave differently when it comes to pay. There is no obvious relationship between salary and such indicators of size and performance as turnover, proportion of income from non-government sources, student numbers, or research rating. And this suggests that some universities and principals will look poor on the Hutton test of ‘just desert’. Finally, some universities and their principals have exercised restraint during the recession but others have not; over this period, the distribution of principals’ salaries has widened significantly.

The most important question, though, is what these figures tell us about the higher education sector. I have nothing but praise for the way that the Prondzynski review panel emphasised the public and democratic roles of universities in modern Scotland. But it is legitimate to ask whether the huge gap between top and bottom in the university pay scales is consistent with that view. Is a growing gap between the ‘chief executive’ and their academic colleagues compatible with a culture of trust, engagement and high morale within the university? Is a growing earnings gap between university principals and Scotland’s employees congruent with high levels of social solidarity and cohesion? Is a growing gap between the salaries of university principals symptomatic of a breakdown in the cohesion and shared purpose of the sector?

If the answers to those questions worry you as they do me, you might wonder what should be done. The answer strikes me as very simple. The Scottish Funding Council should reflect on the Prondzynski panel’s advice, and get on with asking governing bodies what their university has done to implement the Hutton recommendations.


Report of the Review of Higher Education Governance in Scotland, Scottish Government, 2012

Hutton Review of Fair Pay in the Public Sector: Final report, HM Treasury, 2011

John Field, Higher Education and the Recession, available at

I have taken all salary figures from the annual financial statements of universities.