Dame Glynis’ is in her last day as our Vice-Chancellor, she was our University’s first female Vice-Chancellor and has stood her ground for nearly two decades. In her final address today, she expressed gratitude to all those who have helped her achieve the successful status that the University holds. In a bout of nostalgia, Breakwell also remarked, what is an eternity in Vice-Chancellor years felt like it had passed “in the batting of an eye”. However, her final few years have brought controversy and scandal to the University and to national headlines. Today should mark the end of this.
The growing resentment began during the winter of 2016, when Bath Chronicle ran a story that revealed the extravagant home perks Professor Dame Glynis Breakwell received annually as part of her remuneration. The University was marking its half centenary and amidst all the celebration it emerged that the Vice-Chancellor enjoyed £20,000-worth of benefitsincluding the now-infamous £2 claim for biscuits. Her rent free five-bedroom flat in Landsdown Crescent was in addition to the £400k salary she received every year. The decision to raise her pay by a further £50,000 for 2016 catapulted Breakwell into being the highest paid Vice-Chancellor in the country, earning three times more than the Prime Minister.
But, it was Andrew Adonis’ speech last July in the House of Lords that plunged me and many others into the drama that was due to unfold. In a passionate address, he pointed out that 67 members of staff at the University of Bath are on yearly salaries over £100,000, 13 of which are over £150,000. The former Education Minister also expressed dismay over Glynis Breakwell’s 11% pay increase which he thought to be vastly unfair when compared to the 1% increase enjoyed by the public sector and 1.1% cap in pay rise for non-managerial staff at the University.
This was not the first time the issue claimed spotlight though. Concerns were raised at the annual meeting of the University Court in February 2017 about senior pay and the lack of transparency and accountability of the remuneration committee. A no-confidence vote was held, and by a narrow margin of 33 to 30, plans to examine the decisions of the committee were thwarted. Many individuals including Dame Glynis and others who were directly affected by the outcome of the vote were part of the majority. This was the kick of the bucket that led the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) to launch an investigation into the matter.
Meanwhile, sentiments on campus were gaining traction. Bath Students Against Fees and Cuts, a student activist group disrupted the bi-annual ‘Let’s Talk’ event by unveiling banners and delivering speeches that openly criticised the senior management. They demanded an immediate resignation from the VC, a maximum 10:1 pay ratio between staff on the top-most and bottom-most rung of the ladder and a total reform of University governance. Dame Glynis issued an apology to the senate where she accepted that the February meeting was badly managed and she regrets voting on the motion; but despite this, Breakwell rapidly lost the support of her peers. Staff at the University spoke of “a culture of fear” being fostered by the management with senior staff being treated like royalty.
HEFCE published its report on the investigation last November, and officially concluded that the handling of the motion at the University’s court was flawed and unjustified. The beleaguered Vice-Chancellor’s highly anticipated step-down was announced shortly thereafter, with a University wide email revealing that Dame Glynis will step down from office on the 31stof August. She will take a sabbatical which she plans to use to focus on academic work before completely retiring in February 2019. During this period she will stay on full pay and earn about £230,000 and a write-off of a £31,000 car loan as agreed on her appointment in 2001. A representative of UCU, Unite and Unison termed this to be an enormous reward for failure.
The six-figure golden goodbye sparked further fury on campus. An overwhelming 87% of respondents showed their lack of confidence in Breakwell in a University-wide referendum the previous week, and so protests were called. A large mob gathered on the parade on a cold November afternoon last year, waving banners and letting off coloured flares. They voiced their discontent over recent events and demanded the VC be ousted from her post immediately. Frustrated students marched through the campus blasting Rihanna’s ‘Bitch Better Have My Money’ and hurling biscuits into the glass door of 4W where a senior management meeting was taking place. Protestors insisted that the issue was about much more than Breakwell’s pay packet. As one student pointed out “She’s just a symbol of what’s wrong at our Uni, which has become about business and profit, not students”.
At this point, if you find yourself asking, ‘What does a Vice Chancellor actually do?’, don’t worry you’re not the only one.
David Blanchflower clears the air with his article in The Guardian: The job of a VC is a very tough one. It involves running a giant business, making speeches, coordinating with national and local politicians, doing TV and radio interviews, fundraising, talking to alumni, recruiting staff and being on call 24/7. A University is evaluated on both the quality of its research and teaching, to which the VC is central.
Our University has indeed had a good decade so far, rising in the top ranks. It supports 17,000 students, of whom 3,500 are from overseas, and employs 3,000 staff members. According to Bath’s financial income, the University received £123m in research grants and had an annual income of £260m in 2016. A recent report even suggested that nearly 6,000 local jobs are supported by the University. If something bad happens, it is the Vice-Chancellor who has to break the news. Blanchflower argues, “If you pay peanuts, you get monkeys, because markets work”. Besides, Breakwell would have to recruit fewer than two additional overseas students to cover her pay rise.
The wider narrative however, starkly contrasts the writer’s views. The background to the loss of credibility entails privileging a small group of senior management over several years with exaggerated pay and perks, public money being spent on a personal loan write-off, permitting the VC to take on significant additional paid employment, a lack of transparency despite repeated requests for published criteria for these decisions and undermining the collegiate culture so essential to a well-functioning university. The ONS classes universities as private, even though most of their income is from public bodies (especially since much student loan debt will be written off by the government), and a majority were built with public money. Yet there is none of the external accountability to shareholders that is a check on excess pay in private companies. Though having charitable status, universities are exempt from supervision by the Charity Commission and the only check is internally appointed non-executives, whose complaisance on VC pay has been shameful.
As Lord Adonis put it, top pay is the apex of the pay structure and determines what senior management is paid on the whole. The highly paid should set an example especially during a period of pay restraint.