15/09/2017 06:34 BST | Updated 15/09/2017 06:34 BST

Money And Spires

Oh dear, oh dear, oh dear, just when it was going so nicely for the vice chancellors of British Universities, the politicians have to jump in and spoil the party. And what a lovely party it was too. More money flowed into the system via university fees so it obviously makes sense to pay more to those responsible for spending it. As anyone who works in the City of London will tell you, the big profits are made by those who handle the big sums.

At the moment the focus is on the pay of vice chancellors and that is because theirs is essentially an administrative role. Not an easy role, mind you, keeping all those academics in their place and spending your evenings worrying about sexism and racism; it must require some patience. Still, in most cases it is a role which could be performed adequately by any one of a number of different (and of course gifted) people.

That is the point which the vice chancellor of Oxford University misses when she compares her pay to that of a footballer. Supposing your team is near the top of the league and you need a really good striker to win the trophies. Maybe there are only one or two players who can do it and are available but one of those you need to have if you are to take the cup and net all the revenues which will follow. To buy that striker is going to be very expensive indeed.

You see the same in the commercial world. What if you have a multi-billion pound lawsuit and you need a top barrister to present it? Obviously you will go to the best there is and ignore the level of fees which will be academic in the context. That best barrister, or perhaps the one or two who are pretty much as good, can charge very high fees indeed because of the rarity of their skill.

Now, let's take this principle to academia. If the medical research department at a university needs the skills of a scientist who is pre-eminent in his field, they will have to pay an awful lot for him. If there are a dozen or so scientists, all jolly clever of course, who would do as well, they need to pay much less. It is all a question of how badly needed and rare the skill of the particular individual is.

Move on then to vice chancellors. Some, of course, are wholly exceptional and transform the very nature of the institution which they lead. If that institution is failing and only one person can turn it round, it will pay a lot for such talent. That is why headmasters parachuted into failing schools are particularly well paid. Others, hired by flourishing institutions, will carry out an important administrative job which a number of other people could do instead. They need to be properly paid but not at the same level as those whose rare skills are needed. Is Oxford failing or flourishing? The vice chancellor who compared her remuneration to that of a football star presumably thinks the former but I could not possibly comment.

The difficulty comes, of course, when the figure agreed for the individual with the rare and valuable skill set is used by recruitment consultants as a benchmark to justify pay rises for everyone else. Both in academia and elsewhere this is very difficult to deal with. The distinction between the competent but commonplace executive and the truly exceptional one is very hard for outsiders to spot. The government's proposals in relation to vice chancellors will require an explanation to be given where the salary is higher than that of the Prime Ministers. OK so far (though I'm not sure I see quite what the Prime Minister's salary has to do with it) but, once that explanation is received, how is the government going to assess the rarity of the talent of the individual concerned and how necessary he or she is? Should a particular university spend a huge amount in bringing a star quality vice chancellor from the States? If they can't get them, does that justify paying the fee to the person who takes their place?

It is all very difficult so it can only be so long before well-publicised tick-lists begin to emerge, based, no doubt, on appraisals from students and scores for fighting the various "isms". Then we will get to the stage where the only real requirement is that the vice chancellor ticks the right boxes and all individuality will be squeezed out of the role. Anyone will be able to do it, and if you have read this so far you will realise what that means. We won't have to pay very much at all. Yippee! A reduction in student fees. Well done the Minister for Universities!

If government review is unlikely to be successful, is there another way? What about limiting the tuition fees so that universities have less to spend on remuneration? Rather a blunt weapon that, as it would affect money available for research. OK then, split funding into separate pots for research and admin/teaching. Hmm, too bureaucratic perhaps? We will have to think some more!

Still, one thing is sure. We don't want to see academic pay going the way of city salaries with consultants steadily massaging the market upwards to increase their fees. Will the present argument stop that? Sometimes a public outcry can be a very good thing.

First published in the Shaw Sheet