Ross Clark

Footballers deserve their pay - can the same be said of university vice chancellors?

Footballers deserve their pay - can the same be said of university vice chancellors?
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Louise Richardson, Vice Chancellor of the University of Oxford, is, according to the university’s website, a political scientist whose research 'specialises in international security with a particular emphasis on terrorist movements'. Next time she tries to defend her £350,000 salary I suggest she corners someone from the economics department for advice. I don’t think, at her current state of understanding, she would get very far in a PhD on relative pay in the fields of business, entertainment and academia.

I am sure Ms Richardson works very hard and her work is all terribly worthy but, alas, in a capitalist system that is not, and has never been, how financial rewards are dispensed. So for her to defend her salary against attacks by ‘mendacious media and tawdry politicians’ by saying that footballers and bankers are paid far more is fatuous. Unless she would like us to remodel our economy along the lines of Venezuela or North Korea she is going to have to accept that what people are paid is going to be decided ultimately by the value that purchasers put on the service you provide. Premiership footballers are paid vast amounts of cash not because some panel of experts has assessed their skill level and decided to reward them accordingly but simply because they are taking their share of the spoils of a vast international entertainment market. I am not prepared to pay £40 a month to Sky Sports to watch football, but evidently an awful lot of people are, which is why Wayne Rooney and his colleagues have ended up rather well off. Good luck to them – so long as they don’t come crying to government for a bailout if the bubble ever bursts.

If as many people were prepared to pay so much to read the ramblings of academics then Louise Richardson, too, would be on a Rooneyesque salary. Unfortunately, they are not. Louise Richardson’s best-selling work, What Terrorists Want: Understanding the Enemy, Containing the Threat, isn’t doing badly for an academic book published 10 years ago. But even so, at 56,539 on Amazon’s best-sellers’ list, its commercial value is pretty limited.

If Oxford University wanted to set itself free from public money, charge its students what it liked, then as far as I am concerned Louise Richardson could pay herself what she liked. But so long as it remains subsidised by the state she will have to accept that what she is paid is of legitimate interest of taxpayers, the politicians who represent them and the media who hold public bodies to account. At a time when the government is still failing to close the gap between revenue and expenditure the public has every right to expect that salaries in higher education are reined-in to the lowest practical level. Given the huge inflation in Vice Chancellors’ pay since tuition fees were introduced it is not ‘spurious’ – as Louise Richardson suggests it is – to ask whether one has driven the other.

Richardson claims that tuition fees marked ‘the withdrawal of government funding’. Not so. The loans remain underwritten by the taxpayer, and moreover, universities are supported by a pile of research money. Given its name, Oxford no doubt would be able to survive in a purely commercial environment. But the University of Liverpool, whose vice chancellor is paid nearly as much -- £340,000 a year? Vice Chancellors should stop the fantasy that they are business people and accept they are public servants whose pay should be decided accordingly.