One of the most interesting parts of the current row over the high pay of university vice-chancellors is how difficult they’re finding it to defend themselves:

“Vice-chancellors have joined forces this week to defend their salaries. Louise Richardson, 59, head of Oxford University, said her £350,000 pay was modest compared with footballers and accused “tawdry politicians” and the media of mendacity for linking high pay to the increase in tuition fees.”

Not content with sticking with dubious comparisons, Richardson also tried to rope in the BBC pay row by suggesting the Corporation not take the line that she be paid less than her male predecessor.

Such tactics are so transparently bad as to induce cringing, especially the gender one. As Lord Adonis pointed out: “The fact that her predecessor was wildly overpaid is no reason for her to be so too.” The President of Universities UK, Janet Beer, has a better line she might share with her charges:

“The role of the vice-chancellor has evolved from leading a community of scholars to leading large, complex, global organisations – organisations with multimillion-pound turnovers,” she will say. “Competitive remuneration is needed to attract the best leaders with the skills to lead these complex organisations.”

Nonetheless Jo Johnson, the universities minister, is pushing ahead with plans to intervene in university pay decisions.

The new Office for Students (OfS) will “take action”, including possible fines, if it feels that an institution is offering senior staff an unjustifiable pay deal, and under new OfS rules the details of any university staff member paid more than £100,000 will need to be listed publicly.

(If the OfS could also investigate why so many of the lovely, old buildings in any given university end up as offices, rather than teaching spaces, that would also be great.)

I mentioned in a previous article that our current university model falls between two stools because we haven’t made up our minds about whether its a public good or a private one. That doesn’t just affect tuition fees and funding, which I was focusing on in that piece – we can see the same dynamic at play in the row over fees.

On the one hand, British universities (or at least the top-flight ones) really are privately-run, globally-facing institutions. They’re competing for students, research grants, and (if we take the vice-chancellors at their word) executive talent with rival institutions from around the world – some of which, as in America, do pay a lot more.

Yet America has a clear division between its elite institutions and its more public service-oriented state and community institutions. Since Britain hasn’t embraced the American approach, even our top universities also feel very much like part of the public sector.

They are dependant in large if not overwhelming part on the government for their funding, and are thus expected to be cost-effective providers of the service for which the Government is paying: undergraduate (and now postgraduate) education for British students.

Even on this site, there have been different views about the extent to which universities are actually falling short in the latter. But the current row has made it clear that universities must increasingly keep their British customers (both students and ministers) happy if they want to be left alone to pursue their global ambitions.


A short postscript. In his very interesting response to my previous piece on universities, Professor Philip Booth wrote that I “seemed to suggest that the courses that should be subsidised were those that give rise to higher private returns in terms of greater earning power.”

In fact, I suggested that the state should subsidise courses which provided a clear return on investment to the nation, and that courses which didn’t meet this criteria would have an incentive to play up their private rewards to justify higher fees. I fully agree with Booth that the case for subsidising a degree where a lifetime’s high earnings are already incentive enough is hard to make.