The Vice-Chancellor Saga: How Did We Get Here?

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You are likely aware that the University of Bath has been in the media continuously for the past four months, and not for the right reasons. The pay of our Vice-Chancellor has been attracting negative attention, as has the governance processes that have contributed to her salary and perks. But what is the current situation and how did we get here? SU Education Officer, Chloe Page, explains.

Professor Dame Glynis Breakwell came into post as the University’s Vice-Chancellor (VC) in 2001. Since then, she has seen the University more than double in size, and rise through the league tables to become one of the most highly regarded in the UK. However, several years ago criticism of the VC’s growing salary and benefits package – including a grace-and-favour luxury property on Lansdown Crescent and other perks – began to creep into the headlines. In 2015, she responded to her critics with the statement, “I’m worth it”. While backed up by an impressive research career and extensive experience in the Higher Education sector, her seemingly incontrovertible attitude towards her continuous and excessive salary increases, mixed with a reportedly inflexible leadership approach, cemented the VC as a contentious character in the minds of many staff and students. This was compounded when a Freedom of Information request in 2016, by local Labour councillor Joe Rayment, revealed the VC claimed £20,000 in expenses, including claims for a steam mop, laundry service, gas, electricity, council tax, water and sewage – and even £2 for biscuits.

Following a further pay increase for the VC of 11% in 2016, (when the majority of staff pay increases were capped at 1.1%) a motion was proposed at the February 2017 meeting of University Court – the statutory body of around 200 people representing the interests of the University’s internal and external constituencies. The motion declared “concern at the lack of transparency and accountability” of the Remuneration Committee – the group of five (now four) people which decides senior management’s pay. While the Students’ Union supported the motion, it was defeated with 30 votes in favour and 33 against. However, members of the Remuneration Committee itself, together with a number of the staff whose pay it decides, voted on the motion, apparently without declaring any conflict of interest.

This, and the VC’s £451,000 salary, the highest of any Vice-Chancellor in the country, caught the attention of former Education Minister and architect of the student fee system, Lord Adonis. In a speech to the House of Lords in July 2017, he singled out Bath’s Vice-Chancellor as an example of “greed” in the Higher Education sector. Adonis then filed an official complaint with the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE), asking them to investigate Bath’s remuneration and governance processes. This led to a politically fuelled media-storm over the summer, with local and national media reporting heavily on Bath’s Vice-Chancellor and the University’s governance in an almost exclusively negative light. Through this came the revelation that the VC had received another pay rise for the 2016-17 academic year of 3.9%, raising her salary to £468,000.

HEFCE’s report was then released on 20th November 2017, reaffirming what many felt: that the issues surrounding senior management pay and governance at Bath had “caused damage” to the University’s reputation. The report included 13 recommendations for improvement to the University’s remuneration process and the conduct of University Court, however it did also state that the Remuneration Committee’s processes were in line with practice across the sector, and the guidelines set out by the Committee of University Chairs. The VC responded with a public apology to Senate, the supreme academic authority of the University, where she narrowly survived a vote of no-confidence from staff. Earlier that day, an all-staff meeting organised by the three trade unions on campus, attracting around 350 staff members, had voted overwhelmingly in favour of the VC resigning. Following these events, the Students’ Union gave notice of a referendum to take place the following week on confidence in the Vice-Chancellor and the University’s remuneration processes and governing body University Council, which oversees the Remuneration Committee. This was to test the wider student view before a case was put to University Council to ensure democratic representation.

Just days later on Tuesday 28th November 2017, the VC announced that she would be stepping down as Vice-Chancellor next year, on 31st August 2018, and would leave the University after a six-month research sabbatical until February 2019. The VC’s leaving has caused controversy in itself, as she will maintain her high salary until her departure, with a £31,000 car loan being written off as part of the deal. However, whatever your opinions on the VC and her salary, her leaving still neglects to address a lot of the questions concerning University governance and raises new ones regarding what happens now she has stepped down.

The University has assured The SU that it will be involved in the recruitment process for a new Vice-Chancellor, and as a member of both Senate and Council, I want to assure students that we will work hard as your representatives to ensure a candidate is chosen who puts the student experience at the forefront of their approach, and we get a Vice-Chancellor who can lead this excellent university into a brighter future. While our University has been brought into disrepute over the past months (and arguably years), we have an incredible opportunity to reclaim our place as a sector-leading institution by instating a Vice-Chancellor who will maintain the academic standing of the University, proactively tackle the short-comings in our governance processes as outlined by HEFCE, and rectify any reputational damage suffered. We hope this appointment will also bring a more equitable, progressive and positive culture to management at our University which will  filter down from senior management to make this a more welcoming and rewarding working and learning environment for all staff and students.

While the VC’s approach throughout this saga could undoubtedly be viewed with disdain, she has followed established governance protocol throughout, and you could consider her a scapegoat for high executive pay and weak governance across the sector. Nothing about Bath’s governance or remuneration packages is particularly uncommon in England, and as part of a national student voice and working with our peers in students’ unions across the country, we now have the opportunity to lead the way on what governance in a modern-day university should look like. The call that The SU is putting to Bath’s University Council this week is to establish a new norm for governance and senior management pay within the sector. The student voice needs to remain loud and clear on the issue of governance – and there is much to be done yet.

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