“It’s the same the ‘ole world over
Its the poor what gets the blame
It’s the rich what ‘as the pleasure
Ain’t it all a blooming shame”
Popular Victorian Song, especially amongst the poor.
I wrote the following words about senior academics back in 2001
It would be appropriate here to put in a word about the management methods employed by University and College administrators. This group saw what was going on in the privatised utilities sector and they saw that it was good. They followed suit by pushing up staff productivity by the simple expedient of pushing up student numbers whilst holding staff numbers constant. They directed significant fractions of the cost per head savings into their own reward packages. The academic admin boys have hit the jackpot. Their jobs are much less demanding than those of the staff they employ, and their reward packages much better.
Well done, Vice Chancellors.
Are you, like me, a little nervous about the longer term prospects in this sector? Can we go on like this with the numbers expanding remorselessly and the academic standards going who knows where and the top brass getting richer, much richer, between the sporadic episodes of exposure in the media? A difficult question to answer. Are standards in tertiary education rising inexorably like those in secondary education? Or are they in decline?
Sadly I suspect that the latter is the case and, in gloomy mode, I see the prospect at some not-too-distant time of a decision being taken at the highest level – say the European Court of Human Rights – to award every UK citizen a starred first from Oxbridge in the subject of his or her choice from the college of his or her choice. The contest for most popular college and subject would make for splendid television and would give useful and gainful employment to the usual media personalities. At the end of the exercise all our Universities and Colleges of Further Education could then be shut down, and, at a later date, a modest percentage of them re-opened, possibly after fumigation, under more time honoured disciplines and arrangements.
I added the following words in 2015
A letter appeared in today’s Times (Feb 2, 2015) written collectively by the English members of the Universities UK Board. The admin boys were worried that any move to reduce university tuition fees would “affect the quality of students’ education”. This commendable altruism did not appear to have been a consideration back in March, 2014 when a number of reports appeared in The Times deploring the acquisitiveness of this group. Headlines at the time included “Stop university fat cats lining their pockets,” (March 12), and “Salaries still soaring for university chiefs “ (April 4).
There was a sad development a few months later – a few senior admin boys, deeply wounded by their portrayal as greedy parasites – opted for the safety and tranquillity of early retirement on their enhanced pensions.
Small wonder that a sense of disillusion may have been discerned in the lower ranks.
Have things changed since?
Let us see what The Daily Mail and The Times have had to say in the last week or so about the penury being endured by University Vice Chancellors.
“University Chiefs are riding the gravy train“, says Oxford Bursar
The Times – August 4
David Palfreyman, the bursar in question – from New College – was quoted as saying that the salaries at the university were now grossly excessive.
He went on to say – and I admire his courage in doing so – “Despite the Vice Chancellor now being paid far more than in the past and being assisted by a cadre of costly helpers, few in Oxford would be able to detect any improvement in our governance and management”
“University pressure cooker is about to blow”
A war against steep tuition fees and overpaid vice chancellors will break out this autumn unless ministers act now
Iain Martin – The Times – August 3.
Mr Martin – like Dr Slammer in The Pickwick Papers – is furious, but not wholly convincing. Vice Chancellors, being sharp cookies, will have grasped that new stories will sooner or later take over – indeed have already done so – and that all that they need to need to do is to lie low until the fuss dies down, and then they will be able to return to their normal opulent leisurely lives.
But note – as Mr Martin notes – “Despite a public sector pay freeze lower down the chain, at least 1254 vice-chancellors and senior staff earn more than £150,000, i.e. more than does the Prime Minister”.
Mrs May would be delighted to remain in post on her current reward package, but that is another topic for another day.
So how does highest paid Vice Chancellor defend her £451,000 salary? I’m worth it
Daily Mail July 15
A photo of a beaming Dame Glynis Breakwell is shown alongside a report about her life and opulent times in her capacity as the Vice Chancellor of Bath University. The report is replete with details certain to infuriate the poor and the envious – more or less the same people.
Dame Glynis – motto, “There is nothing like a Dame” – found time to claim £2 on biscuits presumably on the basis that every little helps.
The last three words in the headline set out the heart of the matter. The wealthy dame, in response to requests to justify her reward package, simply asserts that she is worth it.
I have no doubt that the Dame speaks from the heart as well as the wallet when she makes her position clear.
But – is she right? By what reasoning did she arrive at that conclusion.
We can’t leave the matter resembling a boisterous scene in a pantomime:
DAME GYNIS: ”I’m worth it.“
GREAT BRITISG PUBLIC: “Oh no, you’re not.”
DAME GLYNIS: “Oh yes I am.”
And so on and so on.
We shall – indeed we must – return – to this crucial point.
Vice Chancellor who says £227,000 isn’t enough – because he didn’t get a free house – My job involves a lot of entertaining
Daily Mail July 28
Craig Mahoney, the VC of the University of West Scotland, “complained that his lack of a grace and favour property means he has nowhere to entertain guests and hampers his work”.
I had not previously understood that entertaining guests played such a prominent part in the work of your typical Vice Chancellor. Evidently standards are much higher in West Scotland and it may be the case that even now Her Majesty The Queen is under pressure to vacate Balmoral in order to placate the picky clientele favoured by the University of West Scotland.
I could go on and on and on. There’s plenty more where the above quotes came from, but – you get the point .
Let me close with a few choice items concerning the Vice Chancellor of Bolton University, Mr George Holmes, who came out fighting when questioned about his reward package.
“Pity all us poor university chiefs. We are not paid enough” says Bentley driving boss on £220,000″
Daily Mail, August 2
“I’m worth every penny, says £220k university chief”
The Times — August 2
Mr Holmes went well beyond the simple asseveration made by Dame Breakwell that she was worth her salary. Holmes said that “we – The Vice Chancellors – are not paid enough,” and a little later “they (Vice Chancellors) should be paid more or they could leave the country”.
His view is that he is worth his huge pay because he is a success.
Private Eye mischievously delved into the claim of the Brilliant Bolton boy to be a success, and came up with the following.
“Eye readers will recall his failed Doncaster Education City scheme which left Doncaster College with a £1.8m deficit in 2005.”
“An Ofsted report in April found Bolton UTC inadequate in all areas, including governance, and placed it into special measures.”
One has to concede that Mr Holmes is clearly a very successful confidence trickster, the Arthur Daley of the Daubhill and Deane Road areas of Bolton.
A status report on the current situation
The affluent academics flushed out by Messrs Dacre and Murdoch will doubtless feel badly bruised but, as I learned many years ago in the hard knocks school of Industrial Relations, cash has a wonderfully healing effect on even the most severe bruising.
What about the rest of us – those outside the magic circle of light fingered academics.
How do we feel?
I would guess that most of us – inured to a steady diet of corruption at the top in the UK, will shrug our shoulders and carry on as best we can.
Let us – you and I – attempt to explore the questions arising from the revelations about the vice-chancellors.
- What is the market price of a Vice Chancellor? On no account put this question to a Vice – Chancellor.
- How did you, the neutral outsider, arrive at your valuation?
- Are the VCs overpaid and, if yes, by how much?
- Or, are their rewards about right?
- Or, are they being short changed, and, if yes, by how much?
We will return to this all important issue, but first – a brief digression.
Let us take a quick look at the problems faced by the BBC in recent weeks. In these weeks Messrs Paul Dacre and Rupert Murdoch have relished the publication by the BBC of the reward packages of its stars and senior managers – a mutually exclusive group.
“To discuss my salary and how I’m worth every penny -I’m joined by my mother
“And now my male colleague will read the autocue more expensively”
The above two gems were the words used to accompany two Matt cartoons in the Daily Telegraph during the BBC reward revelations period.
The furore which followed the revelations provided an enjoyable phase of schadenfreude as those at the top at the BBC – senior managers and (for want of a better word) stars – sought to evade the searchlight which was used to illuminate their affairs. Those cornered did their best to justify their reward packages.
Unfortunately confusion arose because the issue of the largesse being paid out from the public purse got mixed up with the gender issue – why were females overpaid by a much smaller amount than males, a moral question to tax the sharpest of brains of either sex.
But as per the BBC, so too University Vice Chancellors. Indeed, it provokes a further question: how pervasive is the problem of senior managers in the public sector and in the no mans’ land that straddles the public and private sectors – quangoland – overpaying themselves?
I suspect that:
- The problem is widespread, and,
- There will be variations between and within the various organisations
Contrary to the time honoured traditions of UK law we should assume that all are guilty and that the presumption of innocence be reversed.
Cleansing the Stables
Augeus was the king of Elis in ancient Greece and he had a problem. His problem was that he owned 3000 oxen whose stalls had not been cleansed for 30 years. If you do the calculation you will see that Augeus had on his hands, metaphorically, and, arguably, literally, a lot of bullshit. He, King Augeus, arranged with Hercules that if he could clean the said stalls in a single day, he would receive 300 oxen in return, ie a straight 10% cut. Hercules succeeded by resorting to a highly imaginative irrigation technique, and went on to claim the rewards from the contract. King Augeus, like many of his fellow monarchs at the time and since, was not averse to a spot of sharp practice and queried the terms of the deal (were they in writing? – the text does not make this clear) and the upshot was that Hercules remained oxenless.
The term Augean has come to mean filthy, difficult and bereft of reward, the perfect contrast to the cushy number. Hercules had landed a job which combined high demand, zero reward and, another common feature, a lot of bullshit to clear away. None of the labours of Hercules was a cushy number, but his arrangement with Augeus was the one most apposite to my requirements.
British Augean stables ready to be cleansed include:-
- The NHS
- Local authorities
- Quango land
Etc and so on and so on
Is the Private sector, by way of contrast, a model of sound governance, with an all pervasive sense of old fashioned probity throughout?
Err: Not quite.
Back in 2004 I wrote about remuneration committees that operate in the private sector as follows:
“A word about the systems used to monitor or more realistically keep a sleepy eye on executive reward packages. Most big companies have remuneration committees which determine the reward packages of the bosses. Given the incestuous and overlapping membership of these committees it is scarcely surprising that their recommendations err on the generous side and the outcome is an avalanche of cash into executive pockets. This whole operation brings to mind the unseemly expression about “them” all using the same chamber pot or words to that effect.
Furthermore, the salaries (and expense accounts) of those appointed to quangos – non-departmental government bodies – are almost invariably eye-wateringly high, while at the same time rarely obliging the fortunate individuals appointed to them to perform any meaningful or worthwhile activities.
Nice work if you can get it, if ‘work’ is really the correct term.
Now for the tricky bit – What might be, could be, should be done to curb the acquisitive propensities of our senior managers?
Dear Reader(s?) – have you noticed that many of our top brass, when asked if they are motivated by money, respond with vehement denials.
They insist that they are – to a man /woman motivated by a desire to serve the public, and they are at the service of the public. They are all – to coin a phrase – pro bono publico.
If that is the case – we, the public, can remove the cause of their anxiety and sharply cut back their reward packages to allow them much more time to devote to their commendable devotion to serving the public.
If we, the public, proceed along these lines, some malcontents may vacate these shores and take up residence elsewhere where their talents will be appreciated.
If that were to happen then it would indeed be a welcome if unanticipated consequence.
Actions this day – I will imitate the practice of Winston Churchill when he wanted not a Chilcot solution to be completed in or around a decade or so but one to be completed this very day.
- Bring in a modern day Savonarola tasked with replacing the existing generous arrangements with arrangements more suited to the all pervasive austerity stoically experienced and endured by the rest of us.
- HMG to tackle the problem – we need to be clear that only HMG can put in hand the required measures. Fulminating press campaigns will help, but a sympathetic government is a sine qua non to overcome the inevitable resistance of and by the well heeled.
- HMG to appoint an effective latter day Hercules to cleanse the UK Augean stables. The key point to make about the job of our new Tsar is that it is a fairly straightforward task to hand out P45s to those at the top deemed surplus to requirements and memos to those allowed to remain to be informed of the sharp cuts to their reward packages. (Note to No 10 – NOT someone like Eric Pickles who appeared to be – indeed who was – altogether too lethargic in his tenure as anti-corruption Tsar.)
Other measures to include:-
- A ruthless reduction in the reward packages currently collected – note – NOT earned – in the public sector and in quangos.
- A steep increase in the taxes levied upon high pensions – previous generations of Arthur Daleys must not be allowed to make their way to their respective boot hills in golden coaches.
- Making it clear that the people who constitute the theme of these notes, unlike judges, ARE the enemies of the people – they are helping themselves from the public purse on a daily basis.
Image courtesy of University Business