Vice Chancellor Mathieson: does his role justify the salary?

For what job should someone be paid a salary of £342,000 a year? Last February, the appointment of Dr. Peter Mathieson as Vice-Chancellor caused waves of controversy when it was revealed that he would be accepting a salary of £342,000, £85,000 more than his predecessor Sir Timothy O’Shea. In addition to that, he also received £26,000 in relocation fees, £42,000 in lieu of pension contributions, as well as a five bedroom house in Edinburgh, totalling a welcome package of over £400,000. The question has to be asked: what does the Vice-Chancellor do to warrant that salary? 

Dr. Peter Mathieson serves as the 33rd and present Vice-Chancellor and Principal of the University of Edinburgh. While the roles of Vice-Chancellor and President are often lumped together, officially they are two distinct offices. 

The Principal acts as the chief officer and public figurehead of the university. According to the University of Edinburgh website, its key responsibilities are leadership and ensuring the quality of education at the university, overviewing the university’s finances, creating a strategic plan, and maintaining external relationships to the university. 

The Principal upkeeps these responsibilities through two positions; as a member of the University Court and as President of the Senatus Academicus. The University Court is the legal and governing body of the University of Edinburgh, and is made up of the Principal, the Rector, the Chancellor’s assessor, and other members elected from the university and the city. As a member of the Court, the Principal helps determine the finances of the institution, as well as other bureaucratic matters involved in the running of the university. 

The Senatus Academicus, on the other hand, is the academic body of the University. All professors of the university, as well as various elected representatives of lecturers, researchers, and students, also serve on the Senatus Academicus. The body determines the academic framework of the university, as well as research oversight and direction.

HRH Anne, Princess Royal, serves as the current Chancellor, though it is mostly an honorary role. The role of the Chancellor of the university is limited to the conferral of degrees to graduates, or to appoint a Vice-Chancellor to confer degrees in her name. Traditionally, the Principal is appointed to serve as the Vice-Chancellor, in addition to their roles as Principal.

Running a university of over 40,000 students and 14,000 staff is no simple task. However the £342,000 salary Mathieson receives makes him the highest paid Vice-Chancellor and Principal in Scotland, earning £191,000 more than Theresa May.

However, a University of Edinburgh spokesperson told The Herald that, “this salary level is in the second quartile of the Russell Group vice chancellors’ pay. By proportion of turnover, this salary is the lowest in Scotland and the fifth lowest in the Russell Group”.

In addition, salaries of Vice-Chancellors in the UK are significantly lower than their American counterparts. According to Forbes, the average salary of US university presidents was $531,000 (£406,000) and 39 presidents made over $1m (£765,000). President Amy Gutmann of the University of Pennsylvania (UPenn) and President Lee Bollinger of Columbia University made $3m (£2.3m) and $2.5m (£1.9m) in 2014, respectively, in contrast to Peter Mathieson’s £342,000. This disparity is even more striking when one takes into consideration that UPenn has around 32,000 students and Columbia has around 28,000 students, whereas Edinburgh has 40,000 students. 

It could be argued that part of the controversy surrounding Mathieson’s pay is simply bad timing; he arrived flaunting his £400,000 welcome package in the midst of lecturer protests over pensions. However, Mathieson is paid less proportionally than most other Vice-Chancellors in the UK, and paid significantly less than Presidents of equivalent universities in the US. This is not to say that Mathieson’s salary is justified, but rather that a new question begets itself; is Mathieson underpaid, or are university Vice-Chancellors and Presidents overpaid?

Image: Neil Hanna Photography

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