University vice-chancellors’ average salaries ballooned to £272,000 last year, a £12,000 increase on 2014. Freedom of Information requests by the University and Colleges Union (UCU) uncovered these “inflation-busting” pay packages, along with additional data on expenses that reveal the lavish lifestyles enjoyed by fatcats leeching off the university sector.

The UCU report suggests that vice-chancellors’ average expenditure on flights in 2015 was £8,560.37, with 50% of flights charged to university accounts being in first or business class. Meanwhile, average annual expenditure on hotels was £2,989.93. Oxford chief Andrew Hamilton’s income – including benefits and pension contributions – topped the list of incomes at £462,000. This means that Hamilton enjoys approximately ten times the salary of a ‘senior’ Oxford academic.

Oxford’s website claims that “for many years Oxford has ensured that all those employed by the central University are paid the living wage…the University expects to accredit in April 2015 and to move all contractors over to the living wage within the next two years”. Whether this expectation is fulfilled or not, the so-called living wage does not provide a worker with enough to raise a family on. This can hardly be called a genuine effort to increase workers’ pay long-term.

Oxford University defended its vice-chancellor’s sky-high salary, pointing out that its “research output is vast, it has more than £1bn a year in turnover, not including the colleges and Oxford University Press, and it has great institutional complexity… The vice-chancellor’s salary reflects that.” The hypocrisy here is staggering. The huge turnover at Oxford, and the evident hard-work of their staff, suggest that they have every reason to pay its regular staff a far better wage. Sadly, this is not the case, in Oxford or any other university across Britain.

In light of these figures, the UCU general secretary, Sally Hunt, said: “The time has finally come for a frank and open discussion about pay and transparency in higher education. The huge disparities in the levels of pay and pay rises at the top expose the arbitrary nature of senior pay in our universities [and] staff pay continues to be held down.”

While Hunt is right to call for the lid to be lifted off pay scales at British universities, vice-chancellors’ pay packets are not arbitrary. They are the culmination of a protracted process of marketisation that has placed higher education under the authority of sharks from the private sector who reap the spoils of eye-watering student fees, while failing to reinvest back into the system. Hunt has, however, identified the basic situation: we are under attack. This extends all the way from the cleaners and security through to lecturers and research staff, who have found their output demands increase while pay barely keeps pace with inflation.

In response to the UCU report, a Universities UK spokesperson justified vice-chancellors’ salaries by describing them in line with “similarly-sized public and private organisations.” The logic is clear: education is simply a commodity and universities are nothing but businesses run, first and foremost, in the interests of capitalist profiteers rather than students and educators.

What exactly is the role of a vice-chancellor that it should be rewarded so handsomely?  As with much of the public sector, universities have been increasingly modelled on private enterprises since the Thatcher years and vice-chancellors are a product of this turn. Their job is to liaise between academic staff, universities’ governing bodies and the government, exerting the will of the higher-ups through a network of deans, professional managers and other bureaucrats.

In effect, their function is that of a manager of a company: to make far-reaching decisions from the top-down, handle business affairs, deal with investors and bondholders and – ultimately – exploit the workforce to generate profits.

Consider Peter Scott’s 2011 report for the Guardian. Scott was vice-chancellor of Kingston University for 13 years (starting in 1998), before which he was editor of what was then The Times Higher Education Supplement. In his article, Scott brags of being “exceptional in the sense that most vice-chancellors [at the time were] born and bred in the academic system,” whereas he cut his teeth in journalism. He speaks wistfully of the New Labour years as “good times for universities” due to increased student access, while the reintroduction of student fees is justified with the market ethos of “you get what you pay for.”

Putting this nonsense aside (but only for a moment) we get to the crux of the matter when Scott states that these years were “a good time for vice-chancellors.” New Labour policies to ‘broaden participation’ in universities increased the amount of money to be made in a sector that was now controlled by businesspeople rather than academics. Or, as Scott puts it, “the cartel was preserved, and the money was additional.” From the horse’s mouth, indeed.

The free market mantra of ‘you get what you pay for’ would imply that, as student fees (and concomitantly student debt) has skyrocketed, the quality of education available to them will have also increased. All the extra capital of £9,000 tickets to entry for top universities has surely been reinvested in the form of more lecturing appointments, better teaching facilities and the like? Unfortunately, this is not the case. Much of this extra cash has simply gone to filling the hole created by government spending cuts,  paving the way for greater privatisation of the sector and opening the way for capitalists to line their pockets as they tighten their grip on university purse strings.

As part of this process, vice-chancellors’ wages have increased by 14% over the course of five years, but job security and pay for university workers have become precarious, while workloads have dramatically increased as a result of larger student cohorts. By UCU estimates, more than 60% of the academic workforce in Britain is on casual or fractional contracts. Pension cuts, along with the stymieing of career progression at many institutions, have also exerted a terrible, demoralising effect over teaching and research staff.

Meanwhile, student satisfaction ratings (still so cherished by university bosses) have begun to reflect the pressure on frontline university staff. One of the worst offenders, King’s College London (where casualization is rampant and vice-chancellor Ed Burne earns around £400,000) has seen its student satisfaction score in the Times higher education rankings plummet to 114th in the country: an embarrassment for such a ‘prestigious’ institution.

The social structure of our universities is passing through an important epoch. Once, lecturers were considered bastions of the middle class, far removed from the struggle of the workers, but we are witnessing a qualitative change. This change is the product of years of quantitative pressures such as the chipping away of working rights and the lack of meaningful pay increases, which have all combined to proletarianise the lecturers and push them towards the workers’ movement. We have seen instances of students and staff combining to campaign for free education and better working rights.  It must be made clear that it is these two groups, not the parasitic bosses, which allow universities to fulfil their role as centres of research and progress. Education will be a vital part of a future socialist society, and we must press for democratic control of our campuses by students and staff whilst recognising the impossibility of this course of action within a capitalist society. To rid ourselves of the notorious university bureaucracy, we must rid ourselves of capitalism.

Like the junior doctors and tube drivers, university staff are embracing the workers’ movement and fighting for better terms, conditions and wages. The working class has never been stronger, and every passing week it is strengthened by the arrival of more and more “professionals” who now recognise the common enemy that the Tories, and more widely the entire bourgeoisie, represent. Students and workers, unite!

Students, too, are under heavy attack. As our vice-chancellors lay back and relax on a first-class flight, we are confronted with attack after attack. Jo Johnson, brother of Boris and recipient of multiple free degrees, recently announced that he will push through “stronger measures” to ensure repayment, including tracking students overseas. Meanwhile, after a discussion lasting just ninety minutes, MPs scrapped maintenance grants. The Tories have run out of ideas, and are now scratching around for pennies whilst a generation’s future is left in the lurch. This is a reflection of the fact that the capitalist system as a whole has run out of meaningful reforms, and has nowhere left to turn except to cut and to pray that credit bubbles persist and that imaginary ‘green shoots of growth’ survive against all the odds.

We see a different solution than cuts and prayers: a compulsory minimum wage at two thirds of the national average, alongside a 25 hour working week with  no loss of pay, to ensure every worker can provide for themselves and their family, and enjoy life’s small luxuries as well. We demand a university education that is free to all, but also a system of high-standard apprenticeships and other training courses that offer a promising and accessible career for those who do not want to go uni. In short, we want an effective higher education system as part of a structure that allows lifelong learning for those that want it. This is not possible under the current system – it will not improve in any meaningful way under capitalism. The unification of workers and students is a must if we are to liberate ourselves and our education system through a socialist revolution.

by Joe Attard, KCL Marxist Society, and Frankie Toynton, Newcastle Marxist Society

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