Ethical Living

Is our Vice Chancellor’s salary justified?

by Sarah Belger

With the news of the proposed ‘Transforming Cardiff’ scheme, questions over Vice-Chancellor Colin Riordan’s salary seem ever more topical. The scheme has been developed because of the need to ‘ensure that the university is stable in the long term’ due to the fact that expenditure is overtaking income within the university. While the Vice-Chancellor’s £256,798 salary wouldn’t exactly fix the £22.8 million deficit posted in 2017/18, it certainly leads to questions over how the university is spending our tuition fees.

Looking closely at the annual salaries of Vice-Chancellors across the country shows that their yearly pay is often easily higher than the chief executives of NHS hospital trusts or local authorities. A particularly strong example of this can be seen when examining the situation in Birmingham. Birmingham City Council is the largest local authority in Europe, with the chief executive earning £185,000 per year. How can it then be justified, that they earn only half of what the University of Birmingham’s Vice-Chancellor, Sir David Eastwood, earns, at £378,000 per year? This only adds further fuel to the debate surrounding the growing concern that UK universities are becoming more and more business-like, with the fear growing that the system here will soon not be so different from that in the US.

The idea that universities should give reasoning as to why their Vice-Chancellors have such high salaries has not been ignored as the Office for Students has said that it will ask universities to provide justification for any individual staff members earning over £150,000. 45% of the income for universities in England come from public funding so it is understandable to see why people would expect the way this money is spent to ‘public scrutiny’. This issue is especially hard-hitting following the strikes throughout the previous academic year regarding staff pensions. The strikes left many members of staff across the country without pay for various lengths of time and even more students without teachers, ultimately causing huge disruptions to countless degree programs. Although our Vice-Chancellors had an undoubtedly higher workload during this time, they could at least rest easy knowing that it wasn’t affecting their overall income or the progress of their degree. A vote held at the University of Southampton, home to one of the UK’s highest earning Vice-Chancellors, shows that students voices are not always being heard. 91% of students voted for Vice-Chancellor Sir Cristopher Snowdon’s £423,000 salary to be cut, but no changes were made.

Why, then, should students be told that tuition fees are set only to increase, if these fees are clearly not being used to reduce the level of financial uncertainty for their teachers? With a £250 per year added to individual tuition fees, Cardiff University would be receiving an annual increase of £7,500,000 (assuming there are 30,000 students subject to this increase to make the maths easier). If this still isn’t enough to keep the university running the way it should do, then why is there little discussion over other cuts that could be made, namely the Vice-Chancellor’s salary? The fact that students are being expected to pay even more money in order to support the university means that questions are being asked as to why he shouldn’t have to make similar sacrifices.

On the other hand, while researching and reading articles on this topic I was surprised that not all opinions were of this nature. There are some certainly valid arguments as to why Vice-Chancellors receive the pay that they do, with some people even suggesting that they should receive even more. At the end of the day, being the Vice-Chancellor of a large UK university isn’t exactly an easy job and with a shortage of applicants up for the challenge, competitive salaries are necessary if we want the most capable hands in charge of our university. The previous argument about universities becoming too business-like can be countered by the fact that in reality, universities aren’t supposed to be government or state institutions and the people in charge of them still earn significantly less than many CEOs or bankers, with more than 4,000 City bankers earning over £880,000 in 2015. That’s around double the salary of the UK’s (previously) highest-paid Vice-Chancellor (Glynis Breakwell at the University of Bath who earnt £468,000).

Similarly, our Vice-Chancellors earn nothing in comparison to those in the US. If we don’t offer them at least what they are receiving now, then why should they not move over to the other side of the pond, where they could literally be earning millions more? At Cardiff University specifically, our Vice-Chancellor could be considered significantly underpaid compared to others across the country as he falls almost £50,000 short of the £300,000 salary of almost half of all UK Vice-Chancellors.

If Colin Riordan’s £256,798 salary was divided among the (roughly) 30,000 students at the university, we would all receive just an extra £8.55 per year. This does not seem like such a ridiculous amount to be paying someone with such immense responsibilities, so perhaps really we should be looking elsewhere when trying to find solutions for the huge budget deficit, rather than giving into the ‘politics of envy’ which lead only to negative complaints rather than positive suggestions.