by Rowan Gavin
As the farce of university bosses’ salaries has finally entered mainstream debate this year, I’ve often found myself wishing that the kind of people who are comfortable taking pay rises six times larger than their average member of staff, and who don’t see a problem in sitting on the committees that decide their salary, would just piss off out of our universities altogether. So when I read the FT’s interview* with Bolton Uni VC Prof George Holmes the other day, I’ll admit I was a little surprised to read his proposal for a method of achieving just that.
The impressively boring term ‘capital flight’ had become pretty commonplace in neoliberal nations such as the UK since the crash of 2008. And since the referendum result 13 months ago, well – let’s just say that if we’d given the EU a pound for every time some bank-worshipping British commentator used the odious phrase in that period, the Brexit divorce bill would be halfway paid already.
The idea, in short, is that if we don’t make our nation (read: market) attractive enough to capital-wealthy organisations like HSBC and Barclays, by keeping corporate tax down and regulation nigh-nonexistent, then those banking behemoths will somehow pack up 8 Canada Square onto a glitzy flatbed truck and hightail it away to distant lands of glorious corruption and amorality. I’ve always thought this argument was kinda bullshit. Surely it would cost more for such huge organisations to up sticks and transfer their entire enterprise to a different nation than it would to just stick around and pay a bit more bloody tax? We may never find out now – even if a Corbyn-led corp-bashing government does emerge in the UK in the next few years, any capital flight its policy might have caused will probably have already happened thanks to the much larger threat known in the trade as ‘WTF EVEN IS BREXIT ANYWAY AAAAAHH!!’
Back to Prof Holmes, proud owner of a Bentley Continental, a 30ft yacht, and a moderate god complex. He argues that UK VCs, who enjoy an annual salary of £280k on average, are in fact underpaid. Why should our institutions continue to increase the pay packets of these supposedly essential persons? Because their peers in the US and Australia get paid even more, so, obviously, “If we cut people’s pay they will simply go abroad”. Sound familiar? With impressive concision and lack of self-awareness, Prof Holmes has outlined the phenomenon of talent flight. It’s like capital flight, but with talented people who are essential to an industry rather than rich organisations. Obviously, the good Professor considers himself one such individual.
That’s some hubris, huh? We’ve all known someone like this – the school bully, the self-important workmate, that cocky mage in your RPG party, your pub footy manager channeling 2007-era Mourinho, and any number of Saturday morning cartoon villains. They make the most basic of narcissistic demands: do what I want or I’ll leave and you’ll be NOTHING without me, muaha, muahahaha. In many of these cases this threat is powerful, destabilising and cruel. But it only takes a little imagination to call Holmes’ bluff.
Wouldn’t that be a tragedy, George? If corrupt, self-important people like yourself were replaced
Picture it: VC pay gets cut nationwide down to the government’s recommended yardstick of the PM’s salary, £150k. The current crop of VCs emigrate to their overpaying regions of choice, yachts and all. There’ll be some jobs to fill. Who will apply for them? Maybe people who don’t live under the delusion that their university wouldn’t function without them? People who don’t think that whether or not you own a Bentley is the one true metric of success? People who don’t believe that everything is fine and dandy in the sector because universities aren’t (yet) going bankrupt?
Wouldn’t that be a tragedy, George? If corrupt, self-important people like yourself were replaced by others who are actually motivated by their commitment to higher education, not by the promise of ever-increasing remuneration, the sector would surely collapse, the minds of our young people doomed to the horrific fate of having real role models leading their institutions, rather than posturing idiots who think an hour of their time is worth £160+. It would be the end of the world as you know it, for sure. For the rest of us, it might not be so bad.
Prof Holmes’ absurd arguments are the last groans of an old Bentley’s dying engine. VC salaries will start to get cut in the near future – when even Mr Marketisation himself says they’re too high, it’s a sure sign things are starting to change. So you’d better get that yacht sea-ready, George, and prepare to make good on your threat. I know your ego won’t let you believe me, but I can guarantee that you and your ilk will not be missed.
* The FT has a paywall, but it’s kind of inconsistent, so if following that link is the first time today you’ve been to their site you should be able to read the article.
Original for featured image: CC license from pxhere
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