Sir Steve Smith, vice-chancellor of the University of Exeter from 2002 to 2020, earned the most in remuneration from his position compared to other UK university leaders in the 2019/20 academic year, records from the Office for Students (OfS) show.
The university watchdog analysed senior staff remuneration at 166 institutions in 2019/20, only including the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Figures show that over 6,000 university staff, 1.8% of the total, earned over £100,000, rising by over 600, or 0.1%, from the previous year. 48% of universities saw no increase in staff earning £100,000.
Average basic salary and total remuneration across all heads of providers were both up slightly—£219,000 and £269,000 respectively. Remuneration paid to heads rose in 93 providers (56%), fell in 60 (36%), and did not change 12 (7%).
The OfS acknowledged that “some heads of providers may have chosen to waive part of their remuneration over the past 18 months”.
The former Exeter vice-chancellor topped the list with £584,000 in pay and benefits, up from £432,000 the year before. The 2019/20 figure includes a one-off £185,000 payment “under a long-term retention and performance-incentive scheme”.
Imperial College London came second with £527,000 and the London School of Economics third with £507,000.
The former vice-chancellor’s basic salary of £315,000 was ten and a half times as much as the average for Exeter staff.
OfS Chief Executive Nicola Dandridge said: “These figures demonstrate that—across the sector as a whole—pay increases for vice chancellors were lower than the increases recommended for all university staff. But that should not disguise the fact that some of these salaries, and the differences in pay between vice chancellors and academic staff, will appear very high. Those universities should not be surprised to be asked difficult questions about this.”
Last week, following two University and College Union (UCU) ballots, staff from 58 universities backed strike action over pensions, pay, and working conditions. In both ballots, Exeter staff did not meet the minimum required turnout of 50% to strike.
UCU general secretary Jo Grady said: “These figures today, which further expose the cavernous gap in pay between university staff and management, will only make them more determined to take action.”
She added: “Vice chancellors on average are now enjoying a total remuneration of £269k per year and they should now look their staff in the eye and explain why they can’t provide proper pay rises, decent pensions and secure contracts.”
National Union of Students Vice-President Hillary Gyebi-Ababio said that pay rises for vice-chancellors showed “that UUK and UCEA can afford to resolve their dispute with UCU over staff pay, which has fallen by an average of 20% between 2009 and 2019”.
She added: “Staff teaching conditions are student learning conditions, and university bosses must come to the table to address this issue and minimise disruption for students.”
Michael Queen, chairman of the Committee of University Chairs, said: “Universities are highly complex organisations that operate in an increasingly competitive international environment.
“They face increasing challenges to which they continue to respond by enhancing their presence and reputation, internationally, nationally and locally, while at the same time maintaining and improving the learning and teaching they offer and the research they undertake.
“Over the last 18 months, they made an enormous contribution to dealing with the COVID pandemic—through world-class research, the development and production of PPE and the provision of their facilities to the community.”
A spokesperson for the University of Exeter said: “Our former vice-chancellor was one of the longest serving and most experienced in the sector, who achieved extraordinary success during his 18-year tenure at the University of Exeter.
“His salary and reward arrangements were independently set by the university’s remuneration committee and the details made publicly available.
“This included an exceptional target-led, conditional and long-term incentive scheme, agreed in 2013, and which is shown in the figures for 2019/20.
“Under the terms of this contractual retention scheme the vice-chancellor was eligible for a bonus each year, which was only paid on condition that he remained at the university until 2020.
“This reflected the value and importance of the vice-chancellor’s experience, guidance and expertise to the achievement of the university’s strategic objectives over several years.”