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Lift the lid on secrecy over university bosses' pay

10 January 2014

UCU has written to business secretary, Vince Cable, urging him to make universities reveal why senior staff receive the pay rises they do.

University bosses' pay has been in the headlines recently following revelations that vice-chancellors enjoyed inflation-busting pay rises while refusing to offer staff more than 1%.

Last week it was revealed that university bosses at Russell Group universities enjoyed a salary rise of more than £22,000 to nearly £293,000 in 2012-13. When pension payments were included the vice-chancellors received an average package of £318,500 - up from £302,500 in 2011-12. That represents an average salary hike of 8.1 per cent and a 5.2 per cent rise in overall benefits. 

'Their continued avarice is an embarrassment for the sector and we urgently need some transparency.'
Sally Hunt
UCU general secretary

At the other end, staff received a pay rise of just 1% that year and have seen their pay fall by 13% in real terms since 2009. Union members took two days of strike action last term and further disruption is expected this year in the increasingly fractious dispute. UCU said the controversial revelations about vice-chancellors' pay will have done nothing to calm tensions on campus.

In the letter, the union's general secretary Sally Hunt asks Mr Cable to make the minutes of remuneration committees publicly available, including the justification for pay increases. She also says ministers should remind universities of their own strong words against excessive pay at the top.

She says there should be staff reps on remuneration committees and advises that institutions should collate and publish an annual list of the pay and benefits of vice-chancellors and principals, as already happens in further education in all institutions which receive public funding.

UCU general secretary, Sally Hunt, said: 'Despite promising to cut back on excessive pay at the top, vice-chancellors continue to hide behind the shadowy remuneration committee when it comes to their pay rises. Vice-chancellors have no problem accepting large rises while at the same time telling their staff there's no money available and that they must accept another real-terms pay cut.

'Their continued avarice is an embarrassment for the sector and we urgently need some transparency. We want to see proper minutes from remuneration committees made publicly available complete with detailed justification behind any rise in pay.

'The latest revelations will do nothing to help bring about peace in an already fractious pay dispute between the staff being given real-terms pay cuts and vice-chancellors who seem oblivious to their own statements about the need for restraint.'

Click here for more on the university pay row

The full letter:

Dear Vince,

I am writing to you following the publication of recent research by the Sunday Telegraph and Times Higher Education magazine which shows that last year university vice-chancellors enjoyed large pay rises.

The Telegraph analysed details of university heads' pay for the past academic year and found at least 13 vice-chancellors' pay increased by 10 per cent or more. Times Higher Magazine reported that vice-chancellors in the Russell Group universities enjoyed an average pay rise of 8%.

The increase for staff over the same period was just 1%, and UK universities are currently in dispute with all the major trade unions following another 1% pay offer for 2013/14, which represents another real-terms pay cut.

When this issue was last the subject of public debate in 2010 you stated that pay increases for university leaders had 'taken you aback' and that there had clearly been 'salary escalation at the top level that bears no relation to the underlying economics of the country.' 

Mr Willetts undertook to write to universities about this matter setting out your concerns.  In response, Universities UK and the Russell Group stated that with the tightening financial climate, high increases would be a thing of the past.

The new data shows that, just three years later, vice-chancellors are ignoring your and Mr Willetts' strictures and are still receiving inflation-busting pay increases. They are doing so at a time when staff pay has fallen by 13% in real terms since 2009. 

You are quoted in the recent Telegraph piece as saying that, 'taxpayers would expect some degree of restraint in the salaries of top managers of universities at a time when public sector pay is still under pressure.'

What adds to the sense of unfairness and hypocrisy among staff is that vice-chancellors' pay is determined in such a secretive way.  Minutes of remuneration committees are not made public, except in the most obtuse ways, and, all too often, the vice-chancellor is a member of the committee that sets their pay.

Higher education has a key role to play in UK society and the development of our economy.  Yet when staff see their institution head say one thing, but do another on an issue as sensitive as pay, it is hugely undermining.  I would like to respectfully ask you to take action on four fronts to ensure that your message from 2010 is heard:

To revise the guidance to universities so that the minutes of remuneration committees are made publicly available, including detailed reasoning for increases.

To ensure trade unions representing staff are also represented on the committees.

To publicly remind vice-chancellors of your views from 2010 and to ask them to prioritise investment in staff rather than their own pay packets.

To collate and publish an annual list of the pay and benefits of vice-chancellors and principals, as already happens in further education, in all institutions who receive public funding.

I look forward to your reply.

Yours sincerely


Copy: David Willetts

Last updated: 10 December 2015