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Published on January 18th, 2012 | by David Christie
Image © [caption id="" align="alignleft" width="200" caption="University of Birmingham Vice Chancellor David Eastwood, who had the biggest pay rise of all the university heads investigated in the Guardian's report. © Birmingham News Room"]University of Birmingham Vice Chancellor David Eastwood, who had the biggest pay rise of all the university heads investigated in the Guardian's report.  Image from Birmingham News Room's photostream[/caption] The Guardian recently revealed that top university vice-chancellors received an average pay rise of £9,700 last year, which means that they now earn more than £333,000 per year on average.  The number of senior university employees who receive a salary of more than £270,000 is also growing.  This is embarrassing for the government, as it comes at a time when they are attempting a crack down on excessive pay packets in the banking sector, as well as in the world of big business generally.  This new information suggests that they should have been keeping an eye on excessive salaries in the public sector as well.  It is also particularly insulting to students, who are suffering from the rising cost of a university education, cuts to the education budget, and great difficulty finding a job after graduation.  Lecturers, who have suffered a 7% pay cut in real terms since 2009, will not be too pleased either. One way of tackling excessive pay among university heads would be to enable student and employee representatives to sit on the renumeration boards which decide vice-chancellors' pay, a measure which has already been proposed by Sally Hunt, the head of the UCU lecturers' union.  This approach is similar to that which has been outlined by David Cameron on the issue of executive pay in the private sector: Cameron says that he wants to give shareholders the right to veto excessive pay packages.  Nick Clegg's recent announcement regarding the creation of a new 'John Lewis economy' could also have similar implications, as employee-owned firms tend to give their workers a certain amount of control over how the company is run, making it easier for them to rein in executive pay. But will the government take serious action in all of these areas, or are their recent announcements mere rhetoric?  The wealthy backgrounds of Cameron and Clegg lead one to suspect that they are less than enthusiastic about tackling excessive pay in reality, whatever they may say about it in public.  However, the way in which they have been talking about it could reflect a change in society's attitude towards wealth.  It is in stark contrast to the 'loadsamoney' atmosphere which prevailed during the Thatcherite 80s, as well as during the 90s, in which Labour's Peter Mandelson said that he was completely happy with people getting 'filthy rich'. In the past, Tory governments liked to extoll the virtues of unbridled capitalism, and emphasized their belief in the freedom of individuals to acquire wealth.  Now, however, a Tory-led government is criticising excessive salaries and 'crony capitalism', and claiming that it wants to inaugurate a new era of 'responsible capitalism' (though Labour are claiming that they invented this particular phrase).  This change of rhetoric has obviously been driven by the hard times which we are living in.  At a time when many ordinary people are feeling the pinch financially, if the government fails to deliver on curbing excessive pay, then the public may increasingly demand action on it.

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University vice-chancellors: a new breed of fat cat?

University of Birmingham Vice Chancellor David Eastwood, who had the biggest pay rise of all the university heads investigated in the Guardian's report.  Image from Birmingham News Room's photostream

University of Birmingham Vice Chancellor David Eastwood, who had the biggest pay rise of all the university heads investigated in the Guardian's report. © Birmingham News Room

The Guardian recently revealed that top university vice-chancellors received an average pay rise of £9,700 last year, which means that they now earn more than £333,000 per year on average.  The number of senior university employees who receive a salary of more than £270,000 is also growing.  This is embarrassing for the government, as it comes at a time when they are attempting a crack down on excessive pay packets in the banking sector, as well as in the world of big business generally.  This new information suggests that they should have been keeping an eye on excessive salaries in the public sector as well.  It is also particularly insulting to students, who are suffering from the rising cost of a university education, cuts to the education budget, and great difficulty finding a job after graduation.  Lecturers, who have suffered a 7% pay cut in real terms since 2009, will not be too pleased either.

One way of tackling excessive pay among university heads would be to enable student and employee representatives to sit on the renumeration boards which decide vice-chancellors’ pay, a measure which has already been proposed by Sally Hunt, the head of the UCU lecturers’ union.  This approach is similar to that which has been outlined by David Cameron on the issue of executive pay in the private sector: Cameron says that he wants to give shareholders the right to veto excessive pay packages.  Nick Clegg’s recent announcement regarding the creation of a new ‘John Lewis economy‘ could also have similar implications, as employee-owned firms tend to give their workers a certain amount of control over how the company is run, making it easier for them to rein in executive pay.

But will the government take serious action in all of these areas, or are their recent announcements mere rhetoric?  The wealthy backgrounds of Cameron and Clegg lead one to suspect that they are less than enthusiastic about tackling excessive pay in reality, whatever they may say about it in public.  However, the way in which they have been talking about it could reflect a change in society’s attitude towards wealth.  It is in stark contrast to the ‘loadsamoney‘ atmosphere which prevailed during the Thatcherite 80s, as well as during the 90s, in which Labour’s Peter Mandelson said that he was completely happy with people getting ‘filthy rich’.

In the past, Tory governments liked to extoll the virtues of unbridled capitalism, and emphasized their belief in the freedom of individuals to acquire wealth.  Now, however, a Tory-led government is criticising excessive salaries and ‘crony capitalism‘, and claiming that it wants to inaugurate a new era of ‘responsible capitalism’ (though Labour are claiming that they invented this particular phrase).  This change of rhetoric has obviously been driven by the hard times which we are living in.  At a time when many ordinary people are feeling the pinch financially, if the government fails to deliver on curbing excessive pay, then the public may increasingly demand action on it.

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