Defending the pay of a university vice-chancellor is an unfashionable position these days, as tuition fees saddle us with tens of thousands of pounds of debt and our lecturers are forced to strike to earn fair wages.
Yet here I am, because the reaction to Louise Richardson’s £30,000 bonus was so drearily predictable. “Out of touch,” cried the unions, calling for an end to “inflation-busting pay rises” as students complained about accommodation and library facilities. It could have been any principal at any university, so scripted was the press release; just swap out the names and away we go.
Even a cursory skim of the facts shows this one-time remuneration to be more than reasonable. Lets start with the principal’s regular salary: £225,000. A lot of money, no doubt, but no more than she has ever earned at St Andrews. Unlike many vice-chancellors, whose salaries increase with inflation, Professor Richardson has not taken a pay rise in the six years she has been in the job. One online inflation calculator suggests her salary could have been nearer £272,000 this year, were she less modest.
And compared to her peers? The best paid vice-chancellor in the country is Professor Craig Calhoun at the London School of Economics, receives a whopping £466,000. Professor Andrew Hamilton, at Oxford, takes home £434,000. In fact Professor Richardson’s £225,000 is not only below the British vice-chancellor’s average of £254,692, but – considering St Andrews is Scotland’s top university – less than that earned by the heads of Edinburgh, Glasgow, Strathclyde and Dundee.
Vice-chancellors are often criticised for earning so much when those on the bottom rungs earn comparatively little. This is a problem across the sector, but St Andrews is hardly an egregious offender: no members of university staff are paid less than the living wage, and in 2013 just 51 people here were employed on zero hour contracts – rather fewer than Edinburgh’s 2,712, for example.[pullquote]My maths is not always the best, but that looks a lot like a £90,000 net gain for students to me.[/pullquote]
And while remembering that we’re only talking about a one-time £30,000 bonus (not an “inflation-busting pay rise”), let’s also remember that Professor Richardson donated £120,000 of her own money to support student scholarships as part of the 600th anniversary fundraising campaign. My maths is not always the best, but that looks a lot like a £90,000 net gain for students to me.
A smaller fixed salary topped with bonuses is surely a fairer system than paying huge sums outright as other universities do – and it’s hard to argue that the principal’s performance has been anything other than excellent.
Lest we forget, our degrees have never been worth more: over the last few years St Andrews has enjoyed its best ever league table rankings. We have been named Scottish University of the Year for two years running, and frequently place third in the UK. According to the National Student Survey – that is, according to us – we have the best teaching staff of any university in the country.
St Andrews has problems, of course, as anywhere does, but the major ones are being addressed. The previously crumbling Union has nearly completed its £12m redevelopment and the Athletic Union is receiving £14m.
We still face an accommodation crisis, which the University could do more to alleviate, but two new halls of residence are being built while Fife Park and soon Andrew Melville are being refurbished. Widening access, the perennial thorn in our university’s side, is being worked on. There’s plenty more to do, so we mustn’t ease up the pressure on our representatives, but we’re not doing badly.
When I look at Warwick, where the students’ union is considering a vote of no confidence in their vice-chancellor, or Durham, where the recently retired vice-chancellor allegedly threatened to expel student journalists, or Plymouth, where the leadership has been such a fiasco that I don’t have space here even to summarise it, I think we should consider ourselves lucky to have a principal who achieves top results for relatively low pay. If the occasional and deserved performance bonus is the cost of keeping her, I can find little to complain about.
Louise Richardson is undoubtedly highly effective in her position of Principal of this university and this is duly reflected in the enormous salary she receives of £225,000 a year. However, a bonus of £30,000, in my opinion, is shockingly excessive.
I’m not, by any stretch of the imagination, putting our principal’s performance into question. Instead I’m writing to challenge the notion of the University giving out bonuses at all. While the University continues to cut corners by employing workers on zero-hours contracts, forcing people to live on an inconsistent and unpredictable income level, frankly it seems reprehensible that it should decide to give one of its employees such a vast sum of money, on top of what most would consider a astonishingly huge salary anyway.
A more justifiable use of the money might have been education bursaries for those from less privileged backgrounds. A university spokesperson recently attempted to justify this bonus to The Courier stating that our principal has already donated £120,000 of her own money to supporting scholarships and postgraduates.
To be honest, I don’t personally see the connection between what Richardson chooses to donate her money to and the fact that she should receive a bonus. If you or I worked for Oxfam and one day decided to donate £10, wouldn’t it be a bit odd if some time later they decided to give £2.50 of it back.
More selfishly, I’d like to make my own personal suggestions for what this money could be spent on, and for this, please indulge me in pretending that budgets can be interchanged between University departments. I live in University managed accommodation and absolutely cannot fault the University’s residential and building services. Whilst they do a wonderful job of looking after my flatmate and I when the house has needed repairs, our house could really do with some renovation.
I accept that it’s completely unreasonable to expect this and I absolutely do not, but allow me for a moment to dream. If I had control of this £30,000 and had to put it to some use within something the University has control over.
I’d start first of all by buying us a new boiler. Our current one is about 30 years old; the timer is knackered, it’s really expensive to run and pollutes about twice as much as a modern one. I feel irritated every time I switch it on, knowing that we could be paying 50p an hour to run it as opposed to £1. I’d paint the sun-bleached, water-stained 1970s wallpaper in our hall and I’d rip out all the worn-out, fusty carpets and replace them with easily cleaned hard floors. I’d insulate the whole house so that it didn’t feel like a fridge after switching off the heating for ten minutes.
On the other hand, maybe I’d buy £30,000 worth of books for the library, to reduce waiting times for books in high demand. I’d want subsidised gym memberships, to allow students like me to actually be able to afford to exercise regularly, keep fit and reduce stress levels. The list could go on![pullquote]Any measure that serves to make the rich even richer is morally unjustifiable, regardless of profession.[/pullquote]
Anyway, back from fruitless daydreaming to the main point I’m making. The distribution of wealth within this university, within this town, and even within this country, is so shockingly uneven that that any measure that serves to make the rich even richer is morally unjustifiable, regardless of profession. Right across this country, more money needs to flow down from the top to those at the bottom, to allow their quality of life and ability to participate in society to improve.
The rich, regardless of who they are and what they do – be they bankers, government ministers, heads of large companies or university principals – are not the ones in need of more money. The more cash that’s squirreled away by those on large salaries, the less there is available for everyone else. It’s as simple as that. If the university ends up with £30,000 to spare, it is ultimately up to them what they choose to do with it, but before that decision was made, that money was not just her money or their money, but our money.