Universities have stopped vice-chancellors from voting on the committees that set their pay following last year’s outcry over rising salaries but many university leaders have clung to the right to attend the meetings, it has been revealed.
Freedom of information requests by the University and College Union (UCU) found that just nine universities still allow their vice-chancellor to vote on their institution’s remuneration committee, which sets senior staff pay, compared with 66 that admitted to doing so last year.
But UCU said its latest report found four out of five vice-chancellors still retained the right to attend the meetings, and so were able to influence the committee’s decisions, although the proportion had fallen from 95% to 81% in the latest responses.
But the widespread loss of voting rights represents a victory for the UCU’s activism, the acting general secretary, Paul Cottrell, said. “The recent pay and perks scandals at our universities have been incredibly damaging, yet these figures suggest that the higher education sector still refuses to act.
“As a minimum, vice-chancellors need to be removed from remuneration committees and staff and student places guaranteed. There must also be full disclosure of the committee’s minutes and the justification behind senior pay and perks.”
Remuneration committees are usually a sub-committee of the university’s governing body, and meet to set pay awards and benefits, including pension contributions and bonuses, for senior staff such as deans, professors and department heads in high-demand subjects such as law and medicine, and upper echelons of management.
Last year a committee of university chairs issued guidelines that recommended vice-chancellors should not sit on or attend remuneration meetings.
UCU has called for staff and student representation on pay-setting committees, and has accused the higher education regulator in England, the Office for Students (OfS) of being “toothless”. Cottrell said the Department for Education needed to “enforce strong governance” in England if the OfS refused to act.
A DfE spokesperson said: “It should not be the case that vice-chancellors are part of the committee that sets their own pay – the committee of university chairs has even made this clear through its remuneration code, and we expect a high level of transparency when it comes to universities disclosing this information.
“Where issues with senior staff pay lead to concerns over governance, the OfS should consider carrying out independent reviews of a provider’s management adequacy to ensure that these arrangements are fit for purpose.”
The nine that allow their leaders to attend and vote on remuneration committees include the universities of Aberdeen, Chichester, Portsmouth, Coventry, Cranfield and Liverpool Hope University, as well as Heythrop College, Rose Bruford College and the Liverpool Institute for Performing Arts.
About 109 institutions said their VC or principal could attend remuneration committee meetings, while 26 said they were not allowed.
Earlier this year the OfS published a report on senior staff pay at universities, which showed that nearly half of the VCs in England were paid more than £300,000 a year, with six on £500,000 or more.
The UCU study comes as the union’s members appear increasingly unhappy at university employers’ tactics over the future of staff pensions, after last year’s series of strikes over plans to cut pension benefits paid through the University Superannuation Scheme (USS).
Some UCU members have called for the resignation of Sir David Eastwood as the USS’s chair of trustees, over the organisation’s failure to fully disclose a letter from the pensions regulator criticising the USS.
The USS’s latest proposals would mean about 200,000 members of the scheme paying hundreds of pounds more a year in contributions, as well as universities paying in higher amounts.