Higher education prides itself on its individuality, but there has always been a lot of groupthink at the top. I can remember the unending faux consultations in the run up to the Browne review when almost
everyone agreed that tripling tuition fees would be the start of a fairytale that would end happily ever after.
Eight years on, here we are with universities decried as Brexit-opposing enemies of the
people in the press. Our mission, ethos and – of course – who pays for us is the subject of daily debate.
Universities are not buildings. Or balance sheets. Or even homogenous blobs of conformity.
Universities are about people – they are about academics and students and the people who look after both. And these institutions desperately need leadership capable of bringing out the best in their staff.
Yet all too often our vice-chancellors seem unable to think past their own self-interest. The recent scandals involving pay and perks demonstrate how out of touch many of our university leaders are
This summer, leaders compared their pay with that of footballers and bankers and boasted about their classic cars and yachts. Now we’re hearing about hundreds of thousands of pounds on
golden goodbyes and pay-offs in Bath, while the University of Southampton is trying to obscure the involvement of the vice-chancellor in setting his own pay.
Reading these accounts makes you realise that they really don’t get it. And
that is how it feels to work in a UK university, looking upwards at those in charge.
The fact that two-thirds of vice-chancellors sit on the supposedly independent committee that sets their pay calls
into question their leadership abilities and exposes the need for an urgent overhaul of this rotten system.
Because while top pay has risen and risen, staff pay has fallen in real terms by 16%
since 2009. While the percentage spent on staff is falling year on year, expenditure on buildings soar – in spite of the fact students say that’s not what they want [pdf].
In a sector often
described as world-beating, around 50% of staff are on casual contracts with many undergraduate courses almost completely reliant on underpaid, insecure employees. That’s why University and College Union
members at the University of Birmingham are protesting on 8 December over both top pay and the unmanageable workloads which senior staff have failed to address.
These protests over the upstairs-
downstairs nature of higher education echo the staff anger in November at Universities UK’s proposal to end guaranteed retirement payments in Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS), the sector’s largest
Members of USS already have worse pension benefits than school teachers and colleagues who work in post-1992 universities, which are part of a different pension scheme. The new
proposals will make things even worse. Of course, providing good pensions is a challenge in this age, but isn’t that what leadership is all about – recognising that it is people who make our universities
and it is they who need investing in, not a new swimming pool or gym.
Many of those leading the attack on UCU members’ pensions have themselves left USS and made private arrangements with their
university employer to receive the equivalent of their pension contributions as cash. It’s another gravy train yet to be fully exposed: these same people are choosing to make thousands of their employees’
retirements less comfortable.
A fightback is happening, though. It is time
to reclaim our universities. We’re urging staff to ballot for industrial action over pension changes. And we’re telling vice-chancellors to sit up and listen: their staff need a secure future and for their
leaders to show some leadership.
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