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In the news: 8 December 2017

Shadow education secretary and students call for negotiations in USS pension dispute

Shadow education secretary Angela Rayner and the National Union of Students this week called on universities to engage in negotiations to end the dispute over USS pensions. In a joint statement with UCU, NUS said students benefitted from a university sector where staff were properly paid and knew they would receive a fair pension in retirement.

Union News reported that the statement came after shadow education secretary Angela Rayner raised concerns over planned changes to university pensions that could see a typical staff member over £200,000 worse off in retirement.  

As the vice-chancellor pay and perks scandals continued (more on those below), UCU general secretary Sally Hunt writing in the Guardian said many of those vice-chancellors leading the attack on UCU members' pensions had themselves left USS and made private arrangements with their university to receive the equivalent of their pension contributions as cash.


Bath Spa University vice-chancellor in £808,000 pay deal

Sir Christopher Snowden was no doubt thanking former Bath Spa University vice-chancellor Professor Christina Slade for bumping off the news by the middle of the week. It was revealed that she was paid £808,000 last year in an extraordinary deal, thought to be the largest at a UK university, that included £429,000 for "compensation of loss of office".

Times Higher Education broke the story on Wednesday night, but that didn't stop it being the lead story on breakfast news on Thursday morning. Sally Hunt appeared on both the Victoria Derbyshire programme on BBC2 and News at One (21 minutes in). She said that many vice-chancellors and senior staff looked like they are living on a different planet. Defending their own massive rises while pleading poverty when it comes to staff pay and pensions only makes them look out of touch and greedy. Like with Southampton the day before, the university failed to put anyone up for interview to defend their decisions or the thinking behind them.


University of Sussex vice-chancellor got £230K pay-off on departure

This morning, Times Higher Education reported that the University of Sussex's former vice-chancellor was given a £230,000 pay-off in his final month in office. Michael Farthing, who led the university for nine years until August 2016, received the payment "in lieu of notice" on his departure, the university's latest accounts show.

Sally Hunt said that in any other week a quarter of a million pounds payout would be huge news, but we have already seen one almost twice as big this week. She said that with further excessive pay and perks likely to follow, it was time universities stopped simply trying to defend the system and accepting it was time for change.


Calls for inquiries into senior pay and University of Bath severance deal

The BBC reported that the funding watchdog Hefce has been asked to look into governance issues down the road from Bath Spa concerning the University of Bath's retirement deal for vice-chancellor Professor Dame Glynis Breakwell. Staff and students have called for her to go immediately and allow the university the chance to rebuild its reputation. Dame Glynis is due to step down at the end of the summer term, following intense criticism over the university's handling of senior staff pay.

Lord Adonis said he would be using a debate in the House of Lords this morning to call for an investigation into senior pay in universities. He had already threatened to report the University of Southampton to Hefce, but after the Bath Spa revelations he said there was a need for a full independent inquiry.

The Times today carried a piece by education select committee chair Robert Halfon who said that vice-chancellors and university boards needed to wake up and show restraint on pay.  Meanwhile Guardian columnist Michele Hanson said that after seeing news of the Bath story last week, she screamed at the telly, punched the sofa and frightened the dog, as she find this sort of thing disturbing.


Bizarre PR own goal at University of Southampton over role vice-chancellor played in setting his pay

In last week's weekly round-up we reported on the £433,000 pay deal of the vice-chancellor of the University of Southampton. A figure that means the university has spent £1.5m on vice-chancellor salaries in the past three years and incumbent Sir Christopher Snowden has received a 30% rise on the salary predecessor Don Nutbeam received just two years ago.

On Friday the university issued this statement about the deal: "The vice-chancellor's salary was set and is regularly reviewed and agreed by the university's independently chaired remuneration committee, which reports to the university council. The vice-chancellor is not a member of the remuneration committee and only attends by invitation to discuss other business."

On Monday, the university had to admit he was on the board that set his pay. Predictably the university got a rough ride in a press it had tried to mislead. The Guardian said the false statement had escalated the row, while the Times said it had deepened it. Both carried comment from Angela Rayner who said universities had to explain why they were not releasing the minutes from meetings where senior pay was set.

The BBC said academics locally had alerted them to the falsehood after being so incensed by an internal email sent out defending Snowden's pay. Sally Hunt said: 'For the university to say the vice-chancellor's pay was set by a committee that didn't even exist when his pay was actually set will fill no one with confidence about its governance structures.'

On Tuesday Sally Hunt appeared on Sky News and Radio 4's Today Programme (20 minutes in) discussing the problem, while UCU regional official Moray McAulay was on the local BBC South news. Perhaps highlighting the problems of accountability, the university put nobody up for interview.


Protests at University of Birmingham over workloads and senior pay

Staff and students at the University of Birmingham will be staging a protest today in a dispute over working practices. The union says the university must agree to improve workloads and give all academic staff adequate time to focus on all elements of their roles including teaching, research and admin.

The protest comes as scandals over senior pay and perks in universities continue to make headlines. Sir David Eastwood, the university's vice-chancellor, was the fourth best paid vice-chancellor in the UK last year according to Times Higher Education. The Guardian revealed this week that since 2009 he has been paid £2.9m in salary. He also enjoys a university-funded residence provided for him on campus, and a university-funded chauffeur-driven car.


Jo Johnson calls for pay restraint in universities again

Having kept quiet for most of the week, universities minister Jo Johnson yesterday told the BBC that senior pay in universities will be brought under control by new regulations to be brought in next year. UCU welcomed the intervention of the minister but warned that he was the latest in a long line of ministers to have seen previous calls for pay restraint ignored.

Jo Johnson talked tough on senior pay at the start of the summer keen to deflect talk on higher education policy away from labour's plans to scrap tuition fees. Since that debate has subsided he has not been so quick to criticise universities or individual vice-chancellors. It is unclear how this latest intervention will change anything.

The i newspaper used it front page to declare a "backlash over 'excessive' pay" at universities" quoting both Johnson and Sally Hunt. Sally Hunt said: 'Put simply, the status quo cannot continue and an urgent overhaul is required. We will need more than a slightly different approach from a watchdog. Over two-thirds of vice-chancellors sit on their own remuneration committees and three-quarters of universities refuse to publish full minutes of the meetings where leadership pay is decided. That must change.

Johnson also spoke to Conservative Home. In a wide-ranging interview he gives no more detail on how he could actually curb vice-chancellors' pay. He says he is against personal attacks on vice-chancellors (despite singling out Sir Christopher Snowden from Southampton in the summer). But does hint that senior pay rises and rises for all staff should be more compatible.


Further education principals also under fire for lack of accountability on senior pay

The problem of excessive leadership pay is not limited to higher education, as further education principals' pay was also under the spotlight in FE Week today. Responding to analysis showing that 71 college leaders are on salaries over £150,000, Sally Hunt said that high pay showed "too many college leaders are out of touch" and demanded more accountability.

She said: 'While staff pay is being eroded and colleges are struggling to recruit because of low pay, these pay awards show it's one rule for staff and another for those at the top. The recent scandals in universities show there is a desperate need for more accountability at all institutions which receive public funding, including colleges.'


143 former Ulster University employees win compensation after "sham" redundancy process

Ulster University must pay 143 staff 90 days' pay after a tribunal ruled that it broke employment law in a redundancy process. The BBC said the university would be hit with a bill of over £1m after a tribunal ruled that the process was a "sham". The Belfast Telegraph reported how the university misled UCU and failed to consult properly with the union.

Sally Hunt told Times Higher Education that Ulster should make the payments as a matter of urgency. Katharine Clarke, UCU's Northern Ireland official, said that the ruling vindicated everything the UCU had been saying about the university's redundancy process. 'Our members did not volunteer for severance; they were told take an enhanced package or be dismissed with a reduced payment,' she said.

Katharine also appeared on BBC Radio Foyle's breakfast show (1:49:20 in). The university did not put anyone up for interview. You may be sensing a pattern here.


Only a third of students think university is good value for money

There was more bad news for universities this morning with widespread coverage of a report from the National Audit Office that said only a third of English undergraduate students (32%) consider their course value for money, compared to 50% in 2012. The Guardian splashed the story on its front page with NAO head Amyas Morse saying that if universities were banks, they would be investigated for mis-selling.

UCU said the fall in students believing their course was good value for money was unsurprising following an increase in student debt and abundance of stories about excessive pay and perks for vice-chancellors. The union also pointed out that while students considered their courses to poorer value for money, satisfaction levels with the courses and teaching had remained high.

The wide-ranging report said that universities increasing spending on buildings risk providing little overall benefit to educational quality. It also warned of a two-tier university system as the lowest ranked universities saw an 18% increase in the share of students from low participation areas, compared to 9% in the highest ranked.

In an editorial, the Guardian said every line of the report "hinted at a deep scepticism that marketising higher education can meet the government's objective of widening access to university while driving up quality through the power of student choice. Instead, rather than helping those from the least well-off backgrounds to succeed, it risks generating a two-tier system that merely entrenches their disadvantage. And rich or poor alike, the debt will be the same."


Last updated: 26 March 2020