Kate Pickett and Richard Wilkinson's The Spirit Level became an instant bible and seminal piece of thorough analysis for equality campaigners everywhere when it was first published in 2009. The underlying idea behind its socio-economic analysis is a simple one: that more equal societies tend to have more cohesive communities with stronger ties and bonds than societies with greater inequalities. Stronger, more equal communities, have less social problems to deal with as a result. Additionally, more equal societies, as well as organisations and institutions, tend to be more productive as their workers enjoy a greater sense of well-being.
It is actually the spirit of The Spirit Level that I wish to evoke here while looking into a Higher Education (HE) sector that is fast becoming a crucible of income inequality. The Times Higher Education regularly publishes league tables of Vice Chancellor's pay, and in its latest instalment (academic year 2009-10) calculated the average salary of heads of Universities around £208, 593. More recently, the activist and New Statesman columnist, Laurie Penny, filmed a documentary for Dispatches entitled Cashing In on Degrees for Channel 4 which emphasised the egregious nature of top pay at universities. She reported an increased average VC salary of £254, 000 per annum in the Russell Group of Universities while at the same time many low paid workers in HE are still working for pay below that of a Living Wage.
Moreover, this comes at a time when renewed scrutiny has been placed upon those in the financial sector earning outrageous bonuses, as well as those top CEOs in the public sector. Reports from think tanks like the High Pay Commission show quite convincingly that the market clearly fails to regulate itself when it comes to high pay. Simply put, highly paid senior management positions are unaccountable (specifically in the case of the CEOs of banks and corporations) and enjoy little threat of being made redundant unlike ordinary workers. Additionally, cutting the pay of senior staff is seen as an admission of failure or incompetency on behalf of the institution. Lastly, there tends to be an arms race with high salaries seen as a source of credibility (like Universities all charging £9,000 as a hallmark of quality) despite the reality of the actual situation
The average pay differential between the highest and lowest paid worker in the HE sector is 15:1 (this goes up to 19:1 in the Russell Group) while the average in the rest of the public sector stands at 10:1. The HE sector is - and should be - a community, and it is community values that need to be expressed through how we remunerate workers throughout the sector.
While inequality in parts of private sector are associated with a breakdown of social ties, bonds, alienation and the soulless insouciance of high financiers and captains of enterprise we need to put our foot down and say this is not the vision we want for HE. It is because the kind of HE community we should be striving for is one that has a greater sense of the strength of its own social ties and bonds that we believe that we need to work towards incrementally reducing the pay differential to the public sector average.
We saw the strength and feeling of public outrage early this year when RBS chief executive Stephen Hester was lined up for a bonus. It is exactly the public spiritedness that Richard Wilkinson sees as the defining feature of more equal societies that we need now in order to turn the tide of inequality in a sector that has become more and more defined by rampant antagonisms.
For more information go to: www.fairpaycampus.co.uk
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