Belfast Telegraph

Browne-d off by university chiefs' pursuit of profit

By Eamonn McCann

If big money attracted the best there would never have been a banking collapse. The bosses of the finance houses whose reckless lending and pursuit of profit came close to pulling down the global economy were on salaries which the vast majority of us don't dare dream about.

How come, then, that the banks were run in such an incompetent and irresponsible manner? If pay were a measure of ability, only geniuses would have qualified for the top banking positions. But these guys weren't geniuses. Most of them, we now know, were dunderheads.

Has this given institutions paying sky-high salaries pause for thought about the role of pay within their organisations? No. In fact having been at the helm of a major company when its record and reputation are reduced to tatters appears to have no effect at all on the prestige or earning power of those on whose watch disaster struck. Take Lord Browne of Madingley, whose views on these matters have helped shape the strategies of universities, including Queen's and Ulster.

Ten years ago Browne was chief executive of BP on a basic salary of £3.5m a year. He had presided over a devastating explosion at BP's plant in Texas and one of the largest oil spills in history from a BP pipeline in Alaska. He appeared to survive these events unscathed - unlike the 15 workers killed and 140 injured in the Texas explosion.

He was also a non-executive director of banking behemoth Goldman Sachs and a member of the advisory board of Apax Partners, the seventh-largest private equity firm in the world.

In early 2007 Browne applied for an interim injunction against the Mail on Sunday, which was proposing to publish details of an aspect of his private life. The application was refused. The Mail demanded that he be prosecuted for perjury for having submitted a sworn deposition containing a lie. Mr Justice Eady decided not to refer the issue to the Attorney General. The revelation of Browne's behaviour, he suggested, was "probably sufficient punishment".

The judgment went on to observe that Browne's "willingness to tell a deliberate lie to the court ... is relevant to assessing his credibility". Browne resigned from BP and Goldman Sachs.

Would somebody who had left his job under these circumstances then get an interview for, say, a teaching position in a primary school? Most readers might think not.

But Browne, without bother of an interview, landed on his feet with all the agile aplomb of a cat with a degree in gymnastics when he was appointed boss of a £65bn oil and gas group LetterOne, mainly owned by Russian billionaire Mikhail Fridman.

In 2010 Browne was hired by the New Labour Government in which his friend Peter Mandelson wielded considerable influence to produce the Independent Review of Higher Education Funding and Student Finance. Browne had no track record whatsoever in education. But that didn't matter. Education wasn't the point - the point was to turn universities into businesses.

Browne's report has been significant in making money the be-all-and-end-all of higher education and subjecting our universities to the rule of the market.

He summed up his approach in the review thus: "Higher education matters because it drives innovation and economic transformation. Higher education helps to produce economic growth, which in turn contributes to national prosperity."

No mention anywhere of higher education having any broader remit or role in society. Students are referred to throughout as "customers". This is the context in which the vice-chancellors of Queen's and Ulster trouser £250,000 each - even as "ordinary" staff are subjected to wage-cuts, outsourcing, casualisation and redundancies. Same as in any other business.

"We have to pay these sorts of salaries to attract the best people," say spokespersons for both institutions. They mean the best business heads. Nothing to do with social intelligence, or cultural understanding, or commitment to any ideal other than serving the needs of the capitalist economy.

All that old stuff we used to hear about encouraging students to challenge the orthodoxies, critique the assumptions, including the economic assumptions, of society - a load of nonsense. Reading books? Well, if they help you to get on. But for pleasure, enlightenment? Waste of time.

That's the philosophy behind the pay structures and the stripping out from curricula of any strand of learning that doesn't contribute to cashflow.

When it's necessary to bring in outside expertise the first port of call for universities in the North is the Strategic Investment Board.

The mind boggles. The heart sinks. But BP Browne would be only delighted.

Belfast Telegraph

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