University bosses’ pay increases while workers’ wages fall

Australian vice-chancellors continue to rake in huge salaries even as they propose pay cuts for university staff. Figures compiled by James Guthrie of Macquarie Business School show that at least twelve vice-chancellors were paid more than a million dollars last year, and several of them served for only part of the calendar year. 

The huge salaries are particularly galling in light of the cuts to pay and conditions being proposed by university bosses in the current round of enterprise bargaining. At Western Sydney University, where Vice-Chancellor Barney Glover receives $988,380 a year, the new wages agreement imposes a cut in real wages of more than 7 percent over the life of the agreement for most of the university’s staff. 

And high salaries are only one component of many vice-chancellors’ total benefits. For instance, on top of his $1.6 million salary, former University of Sydney Vice-Chancellor Michael Spence was also given rent-free accommodation in a mansion in Sydney’s eastern suburbs. It has since been sold for $9 million. 

Vice-chancellors also receive additional remuneration from board memberships and directorships. The highest paid vice-chancellor in the country, Duncan Maskell of the University of Melbourne, is also a non-executive director of CSL Limited and a director of the Melbourne Business School, the Group of Eight Limited, Universities Australia Limited and the Grattan Institute. 

“While any remuneration for board memberships is not disclosed”, Guthrie notes, “non-executive directors of large publicly listed companies such as CSL can receive in the vicinity of $1,000,000”.

The heads of Australian universities are among the highest paid in the world. While most universities in Australia are public, over the last decades they have come to function in a similar way to private companies. The University of Melbourne no longer even calls itself a public university—instead, it is a “publicly spirited institution”. 

The corporatisation of Australian universities is also reflected in their governance structures. Beginning in the 1980s under the Hawke government’s education minister, John Dawkins, there was a shift in power away from academic senates to corporatised university councils, which included fewer student and staff representatives and more external appointments from the business world. 

The Academic Salaries Tribunal, which centrally determined the pay of academic staff and had some oversight over vice-chancellor salaries, was abolished in 1986. This removed any government control over vice-chancellor pay, which sharply increased in the 1990s and has continued to increase since. Research by academics Rebecca Boden and Julie Rowlands found that in 2018 vice-chancellors were paid sixteen times more than the average lecturer, compared to triple the amount in 1975. 

While they act like big businesses, in some ways universities face less scrutiny than many major companies. Unlike those listed on a securities exchange, for example, universities are not required to disclose their remuneration packages, which means the total pay received by a vice-chancellor and the criteria used to determine it are often shrouded in secrecy. 

While both the exorbitant pay packages and the surrounding secrecy have come under scrutiny in recent years, the attempts to address them have been little more than token gestures. 

Some vice-chancellors took pay cuts at the start of the pandemic, but there is no indication that university councils intend to start systematically reducing vice-chancellor salaries, even as staff continue to face reduced pay and degraded working conditions, and as courses are cut. 

In fact, vice-chancellor pay is trending in the other direction, with more vice-chancellors joining the million-dollar-a-year club, and those with the highest pay pushing well past it. This swollen rot at the top is as strong an indication as any of the problems with the corporatisation of Australian universities and the need to restore a fully funded public education system.

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