The news that vice-chancellors earn an average of £194,000 a year, almost as much as the Prime Minister, is embarrassing to higher education at a time when the rest of Britain is having to tighten its belt. Is the boss of a university really worth this amount? Universities UK believes that such pay reflects the responsibilities of running a multi-million-pound organisation, and it is certainly true that vice-chancellors earn roughly the same as bosses of quangos in the public sector.
But vice-chancellors don't operate in the same kind of marketplace as the chief officers of private companies, although they do live in a world that has become increasingly competitive. They have to try to balance the books, but their institutions aren't allowed to go bust because the Government makes sure that they survive by merging with other institutions or by being given special help. In extremis, however, a vice-chancellor will have to resign, as happened last week over the troubles at London Metropolitan University.
A better question to ask is whether vice-chancellors' pay is performance-related. Perhaps university bosses should set an example and freeze their own pay while the recession lasts.
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