Belfast Telegraph

Ability to pay is what really counts at university today

By Eamonn McCann

A few years ago, I asked a spokesman for Queen’s how the university justified the provision, on top of his generous pay, of a luxury residence and a chauffeur-driven limousine to then vice-chancellor George Bain.

The vice-chancellor had “an ambassadorial role”, it was explained. I suppose it was as good an answer as any other — as good as I was going to get, anyway.

How does Queen’s justify paying current vice-chancellor Peter Gregson’s £900-a-year membership of The Athenaeum Club in London’s Pall Mall?

“Membership provides a London base for Queen’s and access to low-cost accommodation,” a spokesman told the Telegraph earlier this year.

Low-cost accommodation, eh? Not as low-cost as the accommodation he’s moved into at the vice-chancellor’s lodge on leafy Lennoxvale, I imagine, for which Prof Peter is required to pay zlich, zero, nada, nothing.

UK vice-chancellors saw their pay and benefits packages soar by more than 10% last year to an average of £220,000, excluding pensions.

Prof Gregson appears to have done a bit better than most. In June, the SDLP’s Alex Attwood, urging then Employment and Learning Minister Reg Empey to try to curb pay-rises for the most senior university staff, referred to “reports of a one-third rise in the salary of the vice-chancellor at QUB in four years — 13% last year and 5% this year”. Wage offers to university staff generally last year averaged 0.5%.

There is an argument that Queen’s cannot afford to be left behind when it comes to vice-chancellors’ emoluments, given its inclusion in the Russell Group of 20 top research universities — not quite as hard to get into as The Athenaeum, perhaps, but no shoo-in either. Among the elite, appearances are important. (Can’t have the Queen’s v-c appearing at a Russell Groupie conference with holes in his shoes and a mongrel on a string.)

Asked whether Russell Group vice-chancellors weren’t inserting their snouts too deep into the trough (the question may not have been put in those terms), director general Wendy Piatt said: “Russell Group universities fully recognise the financial challenges they and the country face and have been implementing robust cost-cutting measures and stringent ways to achieve greater efficiency and higher levels of productivity in order to get the very best value for money on the public and private investment they receive.”

This is true enough: leading universities have been robustly cutting jobs and stringently curtailing the pay of lower-order academics and others. The language says it all. Financial challenge, greater efficiency, higher productivity, value for money. This is not the argot of academia, but the lingua franca of the boardroom.

Russell Group v-cs, including our man at Queen’s, have welcomed the review by Lord Browne of university funding. On the other hand, the review has been trashed for giving the green light to colleges to allow the market to dictate the price of courses: the inevitable result will be that the composition of the student body reflects even more clearly not ability but ability to pay.

There’s something more ominous under way. The language of the Russell Group reveals how far along the road to full-blown privatisation the Con-Dem Government and top vice-chancellors want to go. As with business, so with universities: they want the state to back off and let the market work its magic.

In spite of all the blather about fairness and inclusion, allowing the market to set the prices of higher education will result in a more sharply-defined two-tier system: one sort of education for students whose families can afford it, another for everyone else. Expect to see a proliferation of special-offer, two-year degree courses and private companies running components of major colleges.

Private companies will, naturally, tend only to fund courses which will deliver graduates with the skills required for economic growth and profitability. Bang go the arts and humanities.

Browne is explicit: “Higher education matters because it drives innovation and economic transformation. Higher education helps to produce economic growth, which in turn contributes to national prosperity . . . On graduating, graduates are more likely to be employed, more likely to enjoy higher wages and better job satisfaction and more likely to find it easier to move from one job to the next.”

The purpose of higher education, then, is to service the economy. There isn’t a syllable in the report to suggest that education might have its own social value.

Browne has set a philistine prospectus before us. We should shudder at the realisation that it fits neatly into the thinking of the boss of our main university.

Belfast Telegraph


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