Happy Vice Chancellor’s Day?

By midday on 12th January 2015, Oxford University’s Vice Chancellor, Andrew Hamilton, will have earned as much money as the university’s lowest-paid full-time employee earns in a whole year. Hamilton’s annual salary including pensions (£434,000) leaves him earning about £1,189 a day, meaning it would only take him around 12 days to earn the baseline figure that a low-paid member of the university support staff receives in the entire calendar year (£14,959). Support staff include cleaners, caterers and clerical staff – those who, in Raymond Burse’s words, “do the hard work and the heavy lifting”.

Burse, the President of Kentucky State University, took a permanent pay cut of $90,000 in 2014 to raise the wages of his university’s lowest-paid workers by three dollars per hour. Oxford Defend Education, a new group forming around education issues in Oxford, are calling for Andrew Hamilton to commit to at least the same reduction. They have also called a day of action on 12thJanuary to raise awareness about pay inequality at universities, asking people to share memes, statuses and tweets to publicise the issue.

Even after tax, our Vice Chancellor earns more in one year than a Grade 1 member of support staff (including service staff such as waiters) would earn in thirty years of full-time service. Even Grade 5 staff, the best paid support staff, earn less than a tenth of Andrew Hamilton’s annual wage. No matter which of the figures you use, the Vice Chancellor’s salary is clearly disproportionate to that of other employees, and arguments to justify exorbitant pay packets rarely ring true.

One might think that universities can only attract ‘good’ managers by offering competitive pay packets in line with those of other similarly-sized organisations, as suggested by the chief executive of Universities UK Nicola Dandridge. This argument assumes that injustice is acceptable if commonly practiced – but if one person cheats at a game, it doesn’t make another person’s cheating any more excusable. Except, of course, Vice Chancellors aren’t cheating. We’ve built this injustice into the game itself.

Yet even on its own terms, the claim that salaries must be extremely high to be competitive is tenuous. It seems unlikely that Hamilton would leave a position as prestigious as the Vice Chancellor’s role because of a slight wage reduction. And even if he did, that would show his dedication was to his pay packet, not his work. Equally, it does not explain why pay for other employees is not rising at the same speed as the Vice Chancellor’s, since good managers are useless without good staff. The unwillingness to apply the same logic of competitiveness to other skilled jobs at universities suggests that it may be an excuse, and it does nothing to exonerate Vice Chancellors of the sheer enormity of their remuneration – a view rapidly becoming the consensus in the Higher Education sector, as The Guardian reports. Even David Willetts, former Conservative Minister of State for Universities and Science, called for Vice Chancellors to exercise “much greater restraint” when they negotiate their salaries.

Nicola Dandridge’s comments about competitiveness also inadvertently highlight the way in which Higher Education institutions are beginning to function more like businesses than public service providers. Increasingly, Vice Chancellors are playing the role of business managers, sourcing and managing private funding to influence the university’s output and distancing education from the public sector. Vice Chancellors are taking salaries which reflect their new role – as academic CEOs. This self-perception is clear from Andrew Hamilton’s most recent “annual oration”, which dealt with the topic of ‘Oxford and the Public Good’. He quotes a book during his speech, in which a character named “Princess Reason” says: “Whenever you learn something new, the whole world becomes that much richer.”  The double meaning is inescapable: in the newly emerging university model, becoming richer is the key end goal – and the nefarious effect of reducing education to a profit-making industry is starting to be recognised by a whole host of commentators, including staff and students.

Higher Education should only be about making money and garnering prestige insofar as that money and prestige is distributed fairly amongst those who research, teach, clean, cook, organise and learn at their institutions. And at the moment, it is not being distributed fairly. Andrew Hamilton’s pay packet is not the only barrier to pay equality at Oxford – there are severe gender and racial inequalities in pay too. According to research by the University and College Union (UCU), in 2011, less than 12 percent of Oxford’s most senior academic roles (as professors) were occupied by women, and an even lower 3.9 percent of professors were black or minority ethnic (BME), accounting for a proportion of the pay gap. In addition to this, women are frequently concentrated in low-paid support roles, as Oxford’s own research has shown; national trends (and plenty of anecdotal evidence) suggest that the same is true for the university’s BME employees.  A more productive way of contributing to the “public good” would be for Oxford to channel funds into researching and rectifying these demographic inequalities, developing, applying and testing the effects of its Equality and Diversity policy more thoroughly, and implementing thoughtful affirmative action policies to correct self-perpetuating imbalances in staff demographics.

Oxford Defend Education is calling for Oxford University and all its colleges to work towards full pay equality in three ways: to commit to a Living Wage for all its staff; to take action to eliminate its gender and racial pay gap; and to commit to reducing the pay ratio to 5:1 over the next five years (meaning the highest paid full-time staff would earn a maximum of 5 times the lowest paid). Considering the vital work that our support staff do, I think that these are admirable aims – and, Andrew Hamilton, if you’re reading, could you follow Raymond Burse’s lead and commit to a pay cut to increase the wages of Oxford’s lowest-paid employees? Those extra pounds would almost certainly mean more to them than they do to you.

PHOTO/ Graham Turner