Are UK university vice-chancellors really worth their pay?

London: European higher education leaders, such as university presidents and rectors, often earn a fraction of the generous salaries enjoyed by vice-chancellors in the United Kingdom and other Anglo-Saxon countries.

However, a new discussion paper from the Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI) argues that many UK university bosses are in charge of high revenue organisations, receiving up to £2.2 billion (around US$2.5 billion) annually, and have enormous local, national and international influence, so high-quality leadership – and high pay – are essential.

Written by Lucy Haire, director of partnerships at HEPI, the ‘debate paper’ is titled slightly tongue in cheek: “Because you’re worth it: Are vice-chancellors worth the pay they get?”.

It claims that UK vice-chancellor pay is “not a Wild West, but determined carefully by remuneration committees” following the Code of Governance published by the Committee of University Chairs.

That does not prevent some UK vice-chancellors earning several times more than the British prime minister and vastly more than chief executives in charge of huge National Health Service hospitals or local authorities.

The top three highest earning vice-chancellors received £714,000, £542,000 and £539,000 and the average vice-chancellor remuneration across the sector in 2021 was £269,000, says the HEPI paper.

This is much less than their equivalents both in the United States, where vice-chancellors earned up to US$2,509,687 (£2,023,300) a year in 2022, and in Australia, where they earned up to AU$1,515,000 (£787,000) in 2021, said Haire.

However, her report makes no comparison with the new UK’s nearest neighbours in northern Europe, where the salaries of university chiefs are much lower.

A quick check by University World News with several leading universities in high cost-of-living countries like Switzerland and Denmark showed a huge gap between the salaries of university bosses in continental Europe compared to the UK.

A spokesperson for the ETH Zürich board, which is responsible for a university in the top 10 of the Times Higher Education World University Rankings, said its president earned just under CHF300,000 in 2019 (around £269,800) while the boss of the University of Copenhagen in Denmark earned just under DKK1,190,000 in 2020 (about £137,120).

The ETH Zürich spokesperson told University World News there was not such a big gap between salaries of top professors in Switzerland and university leaders and despite having a budget of CHF4 billion, the president of the ETH Domain earned CHF292,000 in 2019.

The domain includes the two federal institutes of technology, ETH Zürich and École polytechnique fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL), as well as four research institutes. These institutions have a combined total of 24,000 employees. So, quite a responsibility.

In sky-high cost-of-living Norway, a spokesperson for Oslo Metropolitan University told University World News that their rector earned NOK1,676,255 (about £125,800), explaining: “We have small differences in pay between top managers and other professional groups in the public sector.”

In Denmark, Hanne Leth Andersen, rector of Roskilde University, sent us a link to a website listing the salaries of bosses of the country’s eight universities, and said she was satisfied with her DKK1,560,249 (£180,000) annual salary.

Her university was established to challenge academic traditions and to experiment with new ways to create and acquire knowledge through a project and problem-solving interdisciplinary approach.

She told University World News: “I feel my pay is OK, though it is far from private business of course, and from British universities.

“I don’t feel that the pressure or workload is any less, and even though Danish universities are public institutions, we are highly dependent on student success, as we get our government taximeter from the number of exams passed and can lose some of it if they don’t get jobs fast enough.

“Also, the overdone role of ranking and competition makes our academic world more similar to the private sector.”

However, Haire’s report for HEPI argues that to combat the “divisive rhetoric” over UK vice-chancellor’s’ pay, there should be a redoubling of efforts “to increase awareness of the complex roles of higher education leaders” in the UK.

Talking to University World News, Haire said she only compared UK vice-chancellor salaries with those in the United States and Australia because they were the UK’s leading competitors. Also: “European universities operate in a broadly different way. They have lower cost or no tuition fees and receive mostly block grants or money from the public purse, while UK universities operate in a highly competitive environment.

“That’s why the report compared the UK with similar competitive environments, such as Australia and the United States, where they are not only competing for students and their tuition fees, but also for research grants.”

She said further that comparisons with local authority or hospital chiefs were not done in her study because they were not competitive in the same sense. “NHS hospitals are not competing for patients, for instance.”

She said her report aimed to stimulate a debate during a lull in what she described as the “grumbling volcano” over the whole issue of vice-chancellor pay and welcomed a contribution by Jo Grady, general secretary of the University and College Union, following Haire’s 31 August blog to launch the report on the HEPI website.

Grady suggested the HEPI report “seriously underestimated the level of anger at spiralling vice-chancellor pay” in the UK, and said that while university leaders called for pay restraint among their employees, they do not apply that “logic when it comes to their own remuneration”.

Grady said: “University staff have repeatedly been told that the cupboard is bare while watching their leaders hit the headlines because of bumper pay increases.”

She added that people are shocked when they discover just how much UK vice-chancellors are paid, saying university bosses are “so fond of reminding staff, the unique mission of higher education is about more than just money, but they seem to ignore this maxim when it comes to their own pay”.

She ended her response, saying: “A fairer system would see vice chancellors’ salaries indexed to wider pay in the sector at a level that reflects the fact that all university staff – not just those at the top – are crucial to the sector’s success.”

Final word to former student leader Jim Dickinson, now associate editor of the Wonkhe higher education think tank – he suggested that if the UK (and Anglo-Saxon) argument was that their vice-chancellors had so much responsibility that the role required a highly paid chief executive to fill the role, then perhaps they need to reduce the complexity of the job.

He urged returning to the assumption that the vice-chancellor is “principally an academic leader” and “find other ways of securing leadership over all of the other things they currently have in the in-tray – not particularly because of the salary issue, and more because I can find no evidence that vice-chancellors are experts in housing, social policy, estates management, urban planning, healthcare, catering and so on.”