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Saturday, 14 October 2017

Politicians' Earnings

There is a glorious row rumbling on about the salaries of Vice-Chancellors [general managers] of Universities. A new Vice-Chancellor of Oxford feels constrained to defend a salary of less than £400,000 as the head of one of the half-dozen most powerful and effective academic communities in the world: and that is quite inappropriate. To attract a significant global academic-cum-manager needs that amount of money: though it is only a couple of decades since Sir Colin Lucas occupied the office of Vice Chancellor for a couple of years as Master of Balliol College. Colin was able to persuade the powers-that-be in the university that the time had come to drop the hit-or-miss rotation of the Vice-Chancellorship among the heads of colleges and to employ a top manager on a longer-term contract. Cambridge did the same thing about the same time, and so far the two institutions between them had some successes and some embarrassments: but nobody is proposing a reversion to the medieval system.

The silly title of Vice-Chancellor implies an assistant or deputy to the honorific head of a university, who may be a member of the aristocracy [even a minor royal] or a politician or a benefactor or a distinguished scholar or scientist: but who is in no way involved in the routine management of the place. Several vice-chancellors have added titles like 'president' to their portfolio [evincing a painful need to say 'I'm really the boss'] and Scots avoid the whole morass by being known as 'principals'.

The route to being a vice-chancellor is complex, but now that there are some 120 of them it has become obvious that both the institutions and their general managers are of very different quality. The vice-chancellor of Bolton University [yes, there is even one there now] has waded onto the media several times, bragging of his importance despite his institution wallowing near the bottom of the league. He claims to be worth what he is paid, in a way that would perhaps justify £50,000 a year plus expenses and pension: the fact that he is within spitting distance of the top 'earners' is absurd on any objective criterion.

The row started with somebody making the observation that all the vice-chancellors are paid more than the Prime Minister is paid. This has been developed into something close to a vendetta by the obsessive proponent of the useless HS2 railway, who has been unable to make any inroad into the system; while the government looks most unwilling to intervene. There are at least twenty world-class university institutions in the United Kingdom, including the leading colleges of the University of London. Their heads need to be global figures. But for the rest of the so-say university system the salaries are indeed inflated. How did this happen? I was there at the time. During the 'seventies and the 'eighties of the last century several 'polytechnics' were created, usually by amalgamating teacher-training colleges and craft colleges with city technical colleges. These institutions grew quickly as they 'produced' graduates more cheaply than did the 'traditional' universities; so their Directors were able to negotiate high salaries with their local-authority-dominated  employers. Then the government decided that the polys should be given 'parity of esteem' by being designated as universities. Then the pre-existing vice-chancellors found it impossible to ignore the fact that their median salaries were below those of ex-poly directors; and a game of catch-up went crazy: resulting in the present system.

Then somebody drew in the comparison with the Prime Minister: if she gets a much more modest salary for 'running the country', then it can be claimed to stand as self-evident that V-Cs are paid 'too much'.

This is daft: everybody knows that most prime ministers in recent decades have been quite young people, who had a great deal of lifetime remaining in which to make a great deal of money, if they are so inclined. Gordon Brown is not so inclined: he has a comfortable existence doing global good works. But his old sparring-partner Blair was quickly notorious for the millions that have passed through his personal accounts as well as through the charities that give him a public profile that has not yet diminished his odious personal reputation. David Cameron's cowardly exit from Downing Street and the Commons was followed by the purchase of a hut-on-wheels in which he is writing the memoirs that he hopes will begin the repletion of the fortunes that he and his wife have inherited. Mrs May's impending departure will give her the opportunity to accumulate a cash pile to set alongside her husband's City earnings; starting, again, with heavily-supported memoirs.

The 'granny of them all' among ex-politician big earners, Hillary Rodham Clinton, is in the UK now to promote the memoirs that have been written and published in quick time since her election defeat last November. Like her husband, she had outblaired Blair himself in the league of big post-political earners. So to make a current prime minister's salary a template for anything is simply silly. Some civil servants, NHS managers and others in the public sector are necessarily paid more than the prime minister. If Labour re-nationalise any industries or utilities, they will have to pay their managers more than the prime minister, if they want the re-nationalisation to work. That is the way of the world. Meanwhile, the vice-chancellor of Bolton University will be the living proof that some people in the semi-public sector are indeed overpaid.

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