Richardson’s indefensible pay is a product of the marketisation of education

The vice chancellor's £350,000 salary betrays a worrying trend in higher education that sees bureaucrats rise while academics fall.

Louise Richardson. Photo: John Cairns/OUImages

Louise Richardson has recently come under fire for a comment perceived by many to be defending homophobia. However, the real scandal of what she said was not that students should not complain about homophobic professors, but her defence of her own £350,000 salary, and similarly high salaries of vice chancellors across the UK.

Over the last thirty years, the number of academic positions relative to PhDs, and the remuneration of those who get those positions, has declined. A generation or two ago the standard practice for a newly minted PhD was an academic career path, almost certainly culminating in a full professorship. Today, less than a tenth of newly minted PhDs are likely to become full professors, and even formerly safe branches such as mathematics and biology have a conversion rate of less than half.

At the same time academic salaries have stagnated, even as the price of living has increased – at our own university, the highest a full professor can be paid is £67,827, with a yearly increase below inflation. This salary in real terms is much less than what Oxford professors were paid thirty years ago, with the city much more expensive than it was in the past.

Yet one branch of the academic world has seen a rapid increase in both salaries and positions: administration. Not so long ago, heads of departments, wardens, and even vice chancellors were not paid much more than the professors they oversaw. Indeed, it used to be the norm in the whole Anglophone world for university presidents and vice chancellors to be elected for a fixed term from amongst the current academic staff, and to be paid one and a half times, or at most double, the salaried professor. The administrative staff was small, and most people employed by a university would be either teaching or doing research. Today, however, there is an entire class of people in universities who contribute little to research and teaching, but instead administer, adding needless cost for not much value.

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Richardson defended her salary as vice chancellor on the grounds that, compared to some US university presidents, she was modestly paid. That is true: her salary may be over five times more than an Oxford professor could ever hope to earn without entering administration, but it is paltry compared to salaries for university administrators in the US.

Richardson’s £350,000 pales in comparison to the £570,000 earnt by Drew Faust of Harvard or the £3 million earnt by Mark Wrighton of the University of Washington, St Louis. In a global market for vice chancellors, Richardson probably could earn more in the United States.

If emulating America is the goal, then vice chancellor pay in Britain shows we’re well on the way. If, however, we seek to resist the rampant marketisation which characterises the United States, higher education must stand at the front line.

Academia is a land of contradictions. At one end is the vast army of underpaid academics, many of whom have to work on short term contracts with no job security, or slave away as post-docs. On the other end are the university chief executives—an almost parasitic group that no longer research and simply live off their past careers.

Richardson’s comments on homophobia, deplorable as they are, will have no impact: the tide is already well in favour of equal rights. Her defense of gross levels of executive pay for vice chancellors, however, can have lasting ramifications. The trend towards marketisation of the British higher education system is already starting to damage our universities, and Richardson’s comments will only help accelerate this trend.

By all means be angry about Richardson’s comments on homophobia – but remember that the real controversy is her defence of a burgeoning academic system whose influence would hurt everyone save a self-serving class of academic administrators of which Richardson is a part.