Disclaimer: The views expressed within this article are entirely the author’s own and are not attributable to Wessex Scene as a whole.
In the past year Vice-Chancellor Christopher Snowden’s pay of £423,000 has been criticised by students, staff, and politicians. You may think that this three-pronged condemnation – similar to the ghosts of Christmas Past, Present, and Future, who visited Scrooge on Christmas Eve – may have led to a change of heart in our VC. However, he has continued to earn this pay whilst simultaneously cutting dozens of staff jobs. If that is not a 21st century Christmas nightmare I don’t know what is.
This adds yet another chapter to the long and embarrassing history of VC pay at Southampton. Since 2006, VC pay has increased 116%. Meanwhile, average staff pay has grown 30%, below the increase in the cost of living rise during this period. In 2015-16 we paid more to our VCs than any other university in the UK: £643,000 in total, including a pro rata £418,800 salary for Christopher Snowden, and an incredible pay-off to outgoing VC Don Nutbeam. The following year Snowden commented on his pay increase to £423,000 as “only the cost of living rise” at a student forum, a remark which led to shocked laughter and one that he no doubt regretted afterwards. The salary is also over 10 times average pay at the University of Southampton, and well in excess of 20 times more than the salary of the lowest paid member of staff. It also transpired that Snowden had sat on the very committee that decided his pay. Adding insult to our university community, earlier this year it was reported that executive expenses at Southampton totalled £400,000 in the previous two years, more than at any other university.
Why is this bad? It is surely a principle of leadership that in a time of difficulty the university manager and highest paid member of staff should find savings from cutting their own salary. But Snowden’s actions showed no notion of shared sacrifice, with his salary remaining untouched last year, whilst dozens of staff lost their jobs and students continued to struggle with debt. As a result, university morale has been terrible. This was manifested in the both staff strikes over their pension scheme changes and over 90% of more than 2,000 students voting against the VCs “restructuring”. With Snowden retiring next year, our new Vice-Chancellor needs at least one quality the previous one lacked: leadership.
The only argument given in defence of VC pay – that of the “competitive market” – is fallacious. It is argued that in a competitive and international job market you have to pay these salaries for the best talent. Firstly, I think that it is offensive to argue that the pool of talent for the job of VC is limited to those who are only willing to get out of bed each morning for £423,000. After he was visited by the Christmas ghosts Scrooge realised that there were more valuable things in life than money. Likewise, there are surely many suitable candidates for our next VC who would be motivated to do the job for reasons other than the size of their salary.
Secondly, the “competitive market” argument is not backed up by evidence. The most comprehensive economic study of VC pay and university performance, looking at 154 universities over 10 years, found that there was no causal link between VC pay and university performance. Instead, the authors suggested that the reason was a case of “keeping up with the Jones’s” between universities: paying their VC more purely because other universities were doing the same. When we challenged Snowden on his salary last year he replied that he could have got a job in Australia for three times the pay. If VCs are making these statements, we should let them go to Australia and see who misses who the most.
Finally, these “competitive market” replies sound like the cold-hearted words of Ebenezer Scrooge, who put profit before everything else. Do we want universities to be run like businesses where profit is a higher goal than education? Snowden boasts of his recent bond scheme which raised millions for new buildings at Southampton, but is that what education is about? Many students and staff were unimpressed by the promise of new buildings when their own degree courses were not adequately resourced or supported. And who cares about a university getting bigger or raising more money if the students feel that the university is not being run for them? We have been warned of creeping privatisation before and it is corrupting the relationship between the student and the university. What is the point of a university experience if we are increasingly only considered as paying customers? Our new VC needs to be motivated by reasons other than personal profit.
To wrestle privatisation out of the corridors and lecture halls of our universities we need to learn from the Christmas ghosts’ message to Scrooge. We need to argue that there are talented people who are motivated by important values besides a high salary. If there is no miracle from the spirits this Christmas then it will be down to students, staff, and politicians to bring about the necessary change at our universities in the New Year.