Local Council intervenes in Bath VC pay row

Source: Bath Chronicle

Bath and North East Somerset (BNES) Council has expressed its “concern at the levels of pay inequality at the University of Bath and at the governance arrangements which have led to this pay inequality” in the latest episode of a highly public debate about the excessive pay of University of Bath vice-chancellor Dame Glynis Breakwell, which is now having an acutely negative impact on the university’s reputation.

At a council meeting which discussed a motion from Councillor Joe Rayment – which was supported by a majority of Labour and Tory councillors – the level of pay inequality at Bath University was referred to as “disgraceful”, the chair of the University’s Court was described as “dictatorial” and the “moral vacuum at the upper levels of the university’s governance” was denounced.

“Staff paid according to the higher education single pay spine have suffered a real terms pay cut of over 16% since 2009,” the motion pointed out, adding that “the latest available figure for the vice chancellor (chief executive officer) of the University of Bath was £451,000 for 2015-16 year. This was an 11% rise, compared to a 1% rise in that year for staff paid according to the national pay spine.”

The motion also noted that Breakwell’s salary was the “highest for any vice chancellor in the UK” and that the “pay ratio between the highest and lowest paid member of staff at the University of Bath was approximately 30:1”.

“The vice chancellor of the University of Bath also occupies a grace and favour house in the city, for which the University pays approximately £20,000 each year for running costs including: council tax, utility bills, and a housekeeper with such responsibilities as ironing bed linen and towels,” the motion added.

Furthermore, the University of Bath “provided its vice chancellor with an interest free loan of £31,489 with which to buy a car”, a claim that the motion said had been confirmed by the University. “No other member of staff has been eligible to receive such a loan,” it pointed out.

Reputational damage

Since the scandal hit the public sphere towards the end of summer (HE Marketisation, 4 October 2017), it has had a definite and negative impact on Bath University’s reputation.

According to the university’s union branch for professional and services staff, Unison at the University of Bath, “there have been reports of a very significant drop in undergraduate student applications” which “match feedback from staff across the academic departments that prospective students and parents are frequently raising questions and concerns about senior management pay and governance”.

Aside from the BNES council coming out in protest at the bad name that the university is currently giving the city, Unison point out that four MPs have now resigned from the University, citing unacceptable senior management pay and inequality. “The MP for Bath, Wera Hobhouse, has also condemned university governors for the vice-chancellor “morally indefensible” salary, which she said had “brought the university into disrepute,”” it added.

Film director and University of Bath honorary graduate Ken Loach has also recently joined the fray, becoming “the first external speaker to publicly cancel an event at the University over the scandal”. Unison reported that “he joined students to demand the resignation of the vice-chancellor and senior governors, the introduction of a 10:1 pay ratio, cuts to student rents and governance reforms “to give students and staff more control” of the university”.

Let’s (not) Talk

At a University management organised event at which students and university employees are “welcome to come and listen to the presentations from the senior team, ask questions and stay to chat to the senior managers afterwards” – called Let’s Talk – Bath vice chancellor Breakwell was told to “move on” by a particularly brave, unnamed member of academic staff.

“When I started out as a zoologist, I became very adept at spotting elephants,” he said, “I think there are 451,000 elephants in this room that we’re not actually addressing.”

“We’ve all talked about raising profiles,” he stated, addressing Breakwell directly, who was sitting on the panel. “At the moment I don’t think the university can move on until you move on.”

“We’ve got to the point where the only people ringing us up are for information requests about this, that and the other,” he concluded. “When people become the story, they need to move on.”

The event was also protested by students, who turned up with a banner with ‘Resign Now’ spray painted on it. One student was forcibly ejected by security, which was filmed by other students.

Speaking at the protest, a student said: “We disrupted an event for staff members because we believe our demands are the same”.

“Both students and staff suffer from the senior management’s greed: many of our teaching and support staff haven’t had a decent pay rise in years, and they have also reacted to the recent pay scandals with outrage,” the student added. “In the end, a more democratically-run university means better conditions for both students and staff; whereas a university run like a business only profits an extremely small minority.”

Minor changes

Breakwell has now stepped down from the renumeration committee that decides her pay, and the University has announced it will be undertaking a review of its governance.

“There will be a full, independent and rigorous Effectiveness Review of Council, conducted by a consultant selected according to procurement frameworks,” the University announced. “This will consider fully the operation of the Remuneration Committee to ensure it reflects developing best practice.”

However, unions have questioned the effectiveness of the Review itself: “what we don’t know is the composition of the committee that will be carrying out that review”, commented Michael Carley, University of Bath University and College Union (UCU) branch President.

“It might have an independent chair, but the kind of conclusions it will come to will largely be shaped by who’s on the committee and the kind of information they’re given,” he added. “There should be student and staff representation on that committee and neither the vice-chancellor nor the chair of the council should sit on it.”