‘If you pay peanuts, you’ll get monkeys’. Or, raising the bar a little, ‘in a competitive global employment market, you’ll only get good candidates if you offer them high salaries’. That’s the excuse for the obscene salaries – and bonuses, and expenses – that are paid to people at the top nowadays, including university vice-chancellors, who are the most recently highlighted guzzlers at the trough of greed. Interestingly, it isn’t an argument that is applied to ordinary university lecturers, or to nurses, or to most other employees in almost any line of work. ‘Top’ people are different; motivated only, it seems, by filthy lucre. Sadly, that doesn’t seem to be justified by the achievements of many of those ‘top earners’, who are of course the ones who brought our economy to its knees ten years ago, and are currently engaged in ruining – through subjecting it to ‘market principles’ – Britain’s previously excellent university sector; as well as, I understand, many other countries’. It doesn’t seem to work.
Indeed, I’ve always been highly doubtful of the principle of attracting CEOs, VCs and the rest with offers of huge sums of money. My scepticism rests on this simple notion: that if you are mainly attracted by money – if for example it takes £800,000 a year to lure you to the VC-ship of Bath University (not one of the ‘top’ ones) – you’re likely to be less interested in the job and the task itself. Consequently, having the wrong priorities and motivation, you’re likely to do it less well.
Of course I come from a profession where the job itself – teaching young people, researching, writing – is particularly satisfying, as well as being reasonably paid (I could afford a mortgage at 30), which was reward in itself. Lecturers are dedicated to their calling, and so usually work well at it, whatever the level (within limits) of their remuneration. But apparently being a Vice-Chancellor isn’t like this. Being greedy has the opposite effect. There are greedy lecturers, of course, whose avarice seems – at best – to encourage them to write silly and sensational books for ‘the market’, to boost their royalties. (No names, no pack-drill. And no implication is intended, by the way, that all popular history books are ‘silly’. I’ve tried my hand at writing one or two myself.) But on the whole, poor-ish academics are probably more trustworthy than rich ones, and rich VCs not to be trusted all.
It would be interesting to see what would happen if VCs’ salaries nation-wide were capped at – say – £150,000 per annum. (That still seems a fortune to me, and I was a Prof!) My prediction is that you would then get genuinely dedicated men and women to take on these positions, to the benefit of everyone and everything: the universities, the students, the lecturers, the nation, and academic values. The greedy ones could go off into banking, benefitting but also harming no-one but themselves. They would be no great loss. So, more monkeys, please; fewer pigs.
(On Tuesday, incidentally, I’m off back to Sweden for a couple of weeks – ah, a sane and civilised country! – which might limit the blogging, at least while I’m settling in.)