If Miliband wants a radical offer on HE, he should start with vice-chancellor’s pay

Inequality in higher education goes far beyond how much students pay.

Inequality in higher education goes far beyond how much students pay, writes Alex White.

Given that many in the Labour Party are still uncomfortable that it was a Labour government which introduced tuition fees, I am wary of starting with a quote from Tony Blair. But when he was piecing together his own One Nation Labour, at conference in 1994, he said the following:

“While students scrimp to get through college, a university vice-chancellor gets a 98 per cent vote of no confidence from the staff and is rewarded with £500,000 pay-off. We could have bought half a million exercise books with that. It’s their [The Tories’] system, their dogma, their shambles. But it’s our children.”

A one-off ‘golden farewell’ (later abandoned) is a one-off scandal. But two decades later, the salaries of university vice-chancellors, described on Left Foot Forward as ‘eye-watering’ by the UCU, represents a real injustice in higher education and a damning statement of the Britain we live in.

What does it say to the A Level student, thinking about going to university, that while they have to pay £9,000 a year for their education, their vice-chancellor – who they will most likely never even know the name of, let alone see – received an average 5.5 per cent pay rise last year?

The majority of leaders in our universities have a salary higher than that of the prime minister, yet they offer university staff a miserable 1 per cent pay rise; in real-terms a 13 per cent cut. And unlike the prime minister, we cannot hold university vice-chancellors to account.

Ed Miliband has spoken of a radical offer on higher education. But he should look beyond tuition fees. It is an issue which strikes at the heart of the cost-of-living crisis agenda – universities being run as businesses while management take decisions like scrapping cash bursaries for disadvantaged students, or refusing to pay outsourced workers a fair wage.

There have been good campaigns from the left to force some of the change. University Labour clubs have won the living wage for cleaners, and the inspirational 3Cosas campaign won the living wage, increased holiday, and improved sick pay for workers at the University of London.

But these campaigns, though making real change, are only a sticking plaster for the inequality which exists in our universities. Ed has tackled vested interests in the media, the energy companies, big banks, and inside the Labour Party; there is no reason why he cannot do the same in higher education.

He could start by calling out those universities who refuse to declare how much money goes to vice-chancellors, as the UCU are suggesting. He could, and should, also propose more public funding for bursaries and scholarships for disadvantaged students, following the government’s cut to the National Scholarship Programme. And we need to see some level of accountability for the pay of university management or an effort to keep increases in line with that of other university staff.

If you can’t justify your staff getting a 5.5 per cent increase, then you shouldn’t get one either.

These are not radical moves, but Ed knows he can successfully set the agenda when he tackles vested interests. A radical offer on tuition fees would be welcome, but inequality in higher education goes far beyond how much students pay.

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