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In the news: 15 December 2017

Senior pay hikes and cutting staff pensions will lead to chaos on campus, warns UCU

Writing for Left Foot Forward this morning, UCU general secretary Sally Hunt says the divide in higher education is getting starker and that huge strikes are on the cards unless something is done about it soon. She cites the current scandals over vice-chancellors' pay but says anger at the upstairs downstairs nature of higher education is not limited to pay.

She says there will be widespread disruption on campuses in the new year if a dispute over the USS pension scheme is not resolved. Universities have tabled proposals that would see a typical lecturer lose over £200,000 in retirement income. Sally says it is no coincidence that many of those leading the attack on UCU members' pensions have themselves left USS and made private arrangements with their university employer to receive the equivalent of their pension contributions in cash.

Vice-chancellors' pay continues to embarrass universities

The Sunday Times trawled through 40 sets of universities' accounts and found an average pay hike for vice-chancellors of 10% - well above the 1.1% staff received.

Meanwhile the University of Southampton UCU branch vice-president Cathy Pope was on BBC Sunday Politics (42 minutes in) to discuss the huge sums the institution has spent paying its vice-chancellor in recent years. The incumbent Sir Christopher Snowden is one of the best-paid vice-chancellors in the country, yet is seeking to axe academic staff and hire an executive chauffeur.

Doing himself no favours, Snowden took part in a Q&A with students which the student paper reported from live this week. There is some very peculiar stuff in there including a boast that he could be earning lots more money in Australia and how the university is thriving under his leadership as - despite the lowest score in the recent Tef assessment - there is now free hot water.

It also emerged this week that the public overwhelmingly back UCU's call for vice-chancellors to be banned from being on the committee that sets their pay. A poll for Left Foot Forward found 79% of the public wanted them off those committees. UCU general secretary Sally Hunt said: 'These findings highlight a pay inequality crisis at the heart of our universities. It is clear that current system is broken and serious change is needed.'

Elsewhere a blog for Times Higher Education said that universities would likely fail corporate governance tests on vice-chancellor pay.

Criticism of universities' handling of the crisis and hints of reform

Universities minister Jo Johnson held crisis talks with the Committee of University Chairs, Universities UK and the Russell Group on Wednesday about what to do on vice-chancellors' pay and perks. Times Higher Education believes that there will be new guidelines published next year that will stop vice-chancellors sitting on the committees that set their pay.

The magazine also spoke to some former vice-chancellors who criticised the excessive pay of the current bunch, although Professor Nick Petford, vice-chancellor of Northampton University insisted the furore would die down and we should use the issue to look at governance.

Suggesting Petford's comments would be unlikely to help the furore die down, the Telegraph picked up on his THE interview and listed his salary details, noting an increase on his pay from the previous year. In the Guardian, the vice-chancellor of the University of Buckingham said universities' response to the pay row had been "embarrassing and humiliating".

The Times Higher Education's leader yesterday rightly pointed out that although governance may not create the news stories that pay scandals do, it is what is at the heart of the current crisis. It also rightly asserts that the handling of the crisis has been "tone-deaf in the context of tuition fees, student debt, staff salary freezes, campus redundancies, pension cuts, zero-hours contracts and outsourcing."

How Coventry University enjoys profits and denies rights

Expanding on the need for better governance across all areas of universities, Sally Hunt wrote to the Guardian this week about the situation in Coventry where staff employed by a subsidiary of the university are denied the same pay and conditions of staff working directly for Coventry University.

CU Coventry is a subsidiary company of the university and its board is dominated by Coventry University managers. It does not allow its staff to be represented by a union, pays them less and does not give them access to the pension scheme. In 2016 it registered post-tax profits of £3.8 million which it then gift aided to its sole shareholder, Coventry University.  

£120m national colleges beset by low recruitment and delays

An investigation by TES has revealed that of five proposed national colleges, only three have opened so far - and they are "national in name only". Unveiled in 2016, national colleges were described by government as "centres of high-tech training" that would deliver the "workforce of tomorrow" in industries crucial to economic growth.

UCU said it was concerned that millions of pounds have been pumped into a handful of "as-yet-unproven institutions" while existing colleges "struggle to deal with the impact of budget cuts".

Sally Hunt said: 'This approach only fragments our further education system and deprives communities of valuable local learning opportunities. Instead of funnelling resource into a few small and as-yet-unproven institutions, the government should take a more holistic approach and ensure that the further education sector as a whole is adequately resourced to deliver the skills our country needs.'

Fears growth in unconditional offers is stopping pupils reaching full potential

Reporting on the latest UCAS figures, Times Higher Education notes that more than one in six 18-year-old university applicants from England, Wales and Northern Ireland now receives at least one unconditional offer. The magazine says this is triggering fears that growing numbers of students who accept such offers are being "deterred from reaching their full potential".

There has been a 40.2 per cent year-on-year increase in the number of unconditional offers received by school-leavers in the three countries. This cohort received 51,615 unconditional offers in 2017, up from 36,825 the year before, and just 2,985 in 2013. Professor Alan Smithers, head of education at Buckingham University, told the Telegraph that the growth in unconditional offers made a mockery of A-levels.

UCU has called for a complete overhaul of the system so students apply to university after they have received their results. Such a move would remove unconditional offers.

Jo Johnson launches latest push for two-year-degrees

Accelerated degrees were back in the news this week after Jo Johnson announced another effort at their expansion, which he hopes would allow for-profit providers a route into the UK higher education market. The BBC reported that his latest pitch was that the shorter courses would save students money. Although most of the savings students would make appeared to be based on the fact they would be in employment for an extra year, rather than reduced costs. 

Last updated: 15 December 2017