Vice chancellors' vices

The vice chancellor of the University of the West of Scotland, Craig Mahoney, has today bemoaned his salary of £227,000 as insufficient. The reason? He lacks a grace-and-favour home for entertaining.

Vice chancellors, the chief executives of universities, are some of the best remunerated public officials in the country. The average salary is around £250,000, with pension pots often running into seven figures (Mr Mahoney received a £37,000 contribution last financial year), and an array of expenses which come with their roles.

Scotland has some fantastic universities, with more world-class institutions per head of population than any country bar Luxembourg. Yet in Scotland and across the UK, something has gone awry.

Funding has risen, but problems are manifest. There are vast imbalances in contact hours between degrees, student satisfaction has declined in England and a tuition fee funding system has encouraged complacency from the university chiefs who oversee the delivery of students’ education.

As with crony capitalism in the private sector today, the governance of universities is not responsive to the needs of their customers. Bath University’s income has risen 27 per cent since 2013, and a majority of their income is now derived from students’ tuition fees.  Their vice chancellor, Glynis Breakwell, is the highest paid in the country, on a particularly comfortable £451,000 (up 11 per cent from last year).  In news that will make Mr Mahoney very envious, Professor Breakwell DOES get a free house. She lives rent-free in a Georgian terrace in the middle of Bath, with a housekeeper and £20,000 in additional expenses. But students are not 27 per cent happier with their degree, and nor has there been a material improvement in their post-graduation earnings, one of the chief reasons for embarking on a degree.

Remuneration committees and the boards of universities are often populated by current or former academics, who ensure the financial aggrandisement of themselves and their colleagues, but do not reflect sufficiently on the source of that income: the students who attend the institutions they oversee.

There are different ways of doing higher education, which would lessen the burden on the state and ensure these multi-million pound taxpayers’ institutions are more responsive to their users. Making better use of university endowments would reduce the reliance on tuition fee loans and central government. The leading private institutions in the US, for instance, are able to capitalise on vast reserves and proper investment models to promote genuine social mobility through extensive scholarships and bursaries. The farce of free tuition in Scotland could also be ended, which currently functions as a bung to middle-class and EU students.

Mr. Mahoney would do well to reflect on what he is doing for the people who pay his salary, rather than the insufficient space for his drinks cabinet.