Ben Worthy

This week UCU published the results of its FOI requests about Vice Chancellor’s ‘pay and perks’. For universities, it’s all looking a little bit like the 2009 MPs’ expenses scandal.

Just like the moat and the duck house, some of the perks are a journalist’s dream. A ‘“pornstar martini” on expenses anyone? Laura Ashley mugs? Then, of course, there’s Oscar. Poor Oscar. As the Guardian dryly put it ‘one university even paid £1,600 for its new vice-chancellor’s pet dog, a Maltese called Oscar, to be relocated from Australia.’ In another echo of the expenses scandal, the real issues are being hidden by the silly and strange. Just as David Cameron’s massive mortgage top up was obscured by toilet seats, hidden amongst the cocktails and canines is the fact that most Vice Chancellor’s sit on the committees that set their pay (though they pop out for a ‘whatever’ when their pay is discussed, apparently).  

Not of these things are actually new and all these revelations have been hiding in plain sight. The issue of pay has been bubbling away since recent row over the Bath VC. This is actually UCU’s third go at using FOI to map VC’s salaries and local newspapers and the public have been making FOI requests since at least 2009.


Why now?

Exposes like this normally bite because it’s the right time and place. UK universities are already caught in a complex proxy war involving staff, VCs and the government. The government has already proposed reforming the fees system, introduced by those incompetent fools in the previous government, in the hope they can win back these youth quaking Corbynites (who may not actually exist) by cleverly not offering anything nearly as good as Labour. It has also got itself caught in a desperate muddle of political interference over Toby Young’s appointment and dis-appointmentto the new regulator. At the same time, the government is allowing Brexiters to launch some sort of weird Thermidor culture war against those campuses that they think are a ‘hot bed’ of ‘Remainer’ activity, because they are upset that academics are using ‘facts’ to show Brexit is (i) complicated (ii) a bit poll tax-y.  So these new revelations are like lobbing a brimming pornstar martini on a burning picket line oil drum. Hence headlines like ‘Vice-chancellors told high pay is immoral amid rising student debt’. Ouch.


Will anything change?

Definitely some things will change. VCs will probably no longer sit on their own remuneration committees. There could well be some more motions of no confidence and some stepping down done. Some VCs are learning about what’s called the Barbara Streisand effect, that secrecy sometimes draws attention to things rather than makes it go away. There’s also the lesson that an excuse can be worse than the secrecy, something we can perhaps label the ‘Donald Trump effect’. One VC spoke of the need for an “appropriate leader” to ‘oversee the largest re-structuring redundancy programme ever in UK university history”. This, of course, became the headline ‘Vice-Chancellor suggests he deserves salary of £360,000 as he has to oversee huge staff redundancies’.

However, the long term effect of this openness may be a bit different. Think of the reforms from the MPs’ expenses? Yes, we had IPSA and the non-used Recall Act 2015. But what happened to introducing PR? Reducing the House of Commons to 600 MPs?

Some excessive pay will be cut back. For those hoping to cut costs, publication may probably bring all pay upwards. There’s now a new fair pay code though it’s not clear how this will change some of the deeper, structural changes. Long term, it’s all a bit complex as, just like with MPs, it isn’t clear who exactly will set or curb their pay and where legal responsibility lies. One thing May’s government is very good at is furiously and dangerously oversimplifying complexity: bear in mind this government’s ‘Foreign Secretary’ (I think the commas are necessary from now on) believes an Oyster card can be used between Northern Ireland and Ireland (please note that in the future this will be turned into a very neat exam question with the word ‘discuss’ placed after it).


Who cares?

However, it’s not like the MPs’ expenses for one important reason: no one knows what a Vice Chancellor does. To be honest, I don’t know. And I’ve googled it. I suspect the only two chancellors most people know are (i) the Exchequer (ii) Supreme Chancellor of the Galactic Republic Palpatine. We are all thoroughly distracted by the cuteness of Maltese dogs and the fact that, according to the website ‘Maltese Only’, they do actually suffer unduly from separation anxiety. These revelations may hit that most fundamental political obstacle marked ‘no one cares’.

It’s all bit rich (literally in some cases) from a government that promised to rein back on excessive pay and has only managed to target ‘pay and perks’ transparency at (i) the BBC (ii) universities. Odd choice that. May has, naturally, railed against this high pay. This is from a government whose Brexit Minister refused to attend negotiations without a charter RAF plane and has spent 50,000 on flights. The last few Prime Ministers have, remember, taken a pay cut and struggle by on a measly £150, 402 a year. But mention this to your accountant to make their eyes water. May still gets a central London home (saving £130,000 a year), a chauffeur driven car (saving £876,000 a year) and an away day weekend retreat (saving £370,000). There’s also a whole raft of gifts that the PM can choose from (note, bet that’s a mighty fine pen for £175). That’s at least 2 million sheets- ‘freebies means freebies’ one could say. Even if she’s odds on to be the worst PM since Neville Chamberlain, she is still looking at plenty of post Downing Street job offers and at least a hefty advance for her memoirs (which is, I hear, provisionally entitled ‘What?!’ and subtitled ‘new adventures in constructive ambiguity’). So the headline for May’s intervention should really read ‘Prime Minister with two free houses and a free chauffeur lambasts people getting perks’. As the French say, when you point a finger, remember three are pointing back at you. Perhaps May can get an Oyster card?



Ben Worthy is Lecturer in Politics at Birkbeck, University of London. He tweets @BenWorthy1.

Image: GotCredit CC BY-NC-ND