The early months of 2018 will be memorable at the University of Edinburgh for two reasons: the appointment of Principal Peter Mathieson and the staff strikes for pension security. The new principal’s whopping salary of £342,000 per year comes at a stark contrast to those of the underpaid, undervalued staff that keep the university running. As University and College Union (UCU) strikes look set to continue, issues over pay disparity come into an ever-clearer light.
A storm of controversy has swirled around Mathieson since his appointment in 2017. As principal of the University of Hong Kong, issues over freedom of speech and misunderstanding of students’ needs have surfaced repeatedly. Mathieson has directly addressed these himself and the credibility of the Hong Kong media leaves a lot to be desired. Though opinion over Mathieson’s commitment to academic freedom is divisive, it is well reported. What perhaps deserves more attention, however, is the gratuitous remuneration of his position. At a time when staff are striking across the UK for basic security in their pension plans, can this truly be justified?
According to our new principal, yes. In an interview with The Student, Mathieson argues: “There is an international market for Vice-Chancellors and the university clearly calculated what they were prepared to pay.” He also added that the new salary was a substantial pay cut from his Hong Kong university position. Reasonable enough: the principal will become the highest paid figure in Scottish education with a salary hike of 33% over his predecessor, a welcome package exceeding £400,000 and a five-bedroom house in the centre of Edinburgh. Possibly the best pay cut anyone has ever had.
However, we must be wary of demonising Mathieson as a figure. It is easy to burden individuals with the weight of complex problems; it is less easy to attack the system. 21 members of Edinburgh University staff earn over £200,000 per annum, whilst one in seven postgraduate tutors earn less than £500 per month. The stark disparity between staff pay is not limited to Edinburgh. As Mathieson rightly points out, these are salary scales (inter)nationally accepted for the highest earning positions. Even £342,000 pales in comparison to Bath Spa University’s Christina Slade earning £808,000 in 2016-17.
According to the Times Higher Education survey, 64 universities pay their leaders over £300,000 while a further 13 pay over £400,000. Such dizzying figures come in stark contrast to the majority of staff whose pay rises rarely exceed inflation, and who are sacrificing yet more pay to form the picket lines outside lecture halls over the coming weeks. Not to mention students themselves, most of whom will walk away from university saddled with over £50,000 worth of debt.
We must value our lower paid staff for their contributions and afford them the dignity their qualifications have earned. General Secretary of UCU Sally Hunt calls for reform, claiming “universities have promised time and again to get to grip with excessive senior pay and perks, yet this latest example shows they have no intention of doing so. Politicians can talk all they like about tougher sanctions to deal with the problem, but it looks like universities will continue to ignore them”.
A field with such cultural and economic significance as education must tackle its stark pay disparities. The increasing commodification of education – its transformation from a basic right to a luxurious service – will surely have disastrous effects upon the country. Peter Mathieson’s salary is not the problem; it is a symptom of the disease.
Image: Voice of America via Wikipedia