On the same day that news broke that staff at the University of Birmingham are protesting the obscene pay of their vice-chancellor, I opened an email asking for donations to a food bank that my university, Birmingham City, has started for students. This Dickensian contrast in fortunes demonstrates the widening problems of inequality in universities since fees have been introduced.
I have seen firsthand how hard some of our students struggle to make ends meet so I understand why the university offers emergency food services. I’m sure we are likely not alone. The initiative was started by those on the frontline of student support and is a valuable effort to provide help in a broken system. The very fact that staff have had to reach out for food charity demonstrates the failure of higher education “reforms” to provide for those that need it most.
When my sister went to university, tuition was free and there was a generous maintenance grant. When I went a few years later, my fees were minimal and the grant was still intact for the students who needed it. I now teach in a sector that charges some of the highest fees in the world, and the maintenance grant has been replaced by a loan, with an interest rate far higher than that of most mortgages. It is chilling to think what future generations of students will have to overcome in order to participate in higher education.
At the other end of the spectrum to hungry students are university vice-chancellors (VCs), who are being paid a king’s ransom. VCs have become CEOs who are rewarded for attracting customers into multimillion-pound businesses. Competition for consumers (they used to just be students) has led to an arms race across the sector to renovate utilitarian campuses into lavish spaces with recreational facilities and high street coffee chains. Halls of residence have been transformed from being functional units to study for a degree into luxury apartments, which are often so expensive I cannot imagine how anyone affords them. My family certainly would not have been able to. The impact has been a predictably sharp rise in the cost of university accommodation – no wonder some students are having difficulty finding enough money for food.
The problem is that when education becomes a commodity and students are converted into consumers, the financial bottom line shapes decision-making. VCs are rewarded for staff cutbacks and saving money using casual contracts, no matter the impact on the quality of the “product” they are selling. Increasing the cost of living through outsourcing services and building luxury student housing is worth a bonus, as long as it pulls in the punters and generates more revenue.
VCs are rewarded for making the sort of decisions more associated with CEOs, with David Eastwood at the University of Birmingham “earning” almost £3m since taking over in 2009, not including the house and chauffeur-driven car. In fairness to him he is not alone in his absurdly high pay: Glynis Breakwell at the University of Bath stepped down amid controversy and Christopher Snowden is facing protests at the University of Southampton. But Eastwood is reserved a special circle in neoliberal hell because, alongside Baroness Julia King, who was then at Aston, they were the only VCs to sit on the Browne Review that led to market forces being unleashed on universities.
Lord Adonis has called for a cap on excessive VC pay, and wants an inquiry headed by the archbishop of Canterbury. Ignore the howls of disapproval from advocates of the free market claiming that the role is underpaid given the size of the businesses, and that without high salaries “the best people leave”.
I’ve spent the last 15 years in universities, experiencing every level from undergraduate to senior academic. There is perhaps no less appropriate institution for the “captain of industry” model. The lifeblood of the university is teaching, research and student support. Like most organisations, it is the staff at the ground level who ensure the smooth running of the university, and make decisions such as setting up food donations for students in need. Most strategic decisions are made at the department, school or faculty level and while the VC sets a framework for this work, they have little direct impact on the majority of the activity that makes a university education attractive. VCs play an important role but how could they ever truly justify the excessive sums that some universities pay out?
Even though students now pay for the privilege of learning, they are not simply consumers, but an active part of what makes university a unique experience. VCs are not directly responsible for all the hardships that students face – the government bears a significant responsibility. But it is undeniable that the changes most universities have championed under their leadership has drastically increased the cost of studying. While some VCs are getting rich, there are students who have to rely on charity for their most basic necessities. Let them eat donated non-perishables.
• Kehinde Andrews is an associate professor in sociology at Birmingham City University