They Think It’s All Over – Sadly Not

John Rushforth, Executive Secretary of the Committee of University Chairs (CUC), reflects on the draft remuneration code and asks where we go from here.

The publication of the draft Remuneration Code was for me at least a relief. With the help of several colleagues in AHUA, UHR and UCEA and a number of individual CUC members, the version that went out both met its deadlines and got as good a reception as I could have hoped for. I never had any expectation that we could please everyone, but the initial reaction was supportive.

As ever, one has to cope with the media. There was a bit of reaction amongst some of the CUC members when the BBC, amongst others, highlighted the OfS CEO’s comment that said ‘the proposals were insufficient’. Of course when you read what Nicola actually said it’s perfectly reasonable: simply publishing the Code is not enough, we have to apply it.

And that’s where any notion that this remuneration ‘debate’ is over is sadly misplaced. The new minister is reportedly ‘intensively relaxed over VC pay’ and I know some colleagues are hoping that this will mean the spotlight shifts away from senior pay to something more significant. Perhaps the focus might then fall on a review of HE, managing pensions or maybe even how to limit the damage of Brexit on HE.

I can’t see it myself. Of course, I hope we drop the unhelpful comparisons with the Prime Minister’s salary. And I hope that she recognises the sector needs the right talent, so higher pay is appropriate when justified and co-regulation is the best approach for HE. But given the level of comment that will come from other quarters, it seems reasonable to assume that any government minister will want to be confident that the market for vice chancellor recruitment and the processes for setting their pay is working.

So, what next? First, we must see what the actual consultation responses are, because CUC is committed to having a Code that works for the sector. As I write, the two consultation responses we’ve had so far are very positive. But seriously, if you are writing the response, I have two pleas. First, if there’s something that won’t work then be specific and explain why; that then puts us in a position to fix it. Second, we will publish the responses and it would be helpful if the sector signals that while the draft isn’t perfect, the general thrust towards more transparency is entirely appropriate, and one the sector will actively and enthusiastically embrace.

Whatever the responses are, I believe we should be able to resolve any issues that arise at the CUC’s April plenary and then publish in May for implementation in the new financial year. Then it’s over to the sector – and I think we’ve got to really make this transparency work for us.

I’m hoping the sector sees this as an opportunity to move onto the front foot and change the narrative. It’s a chance to move away from conversations stressing confidentiality and comparisons with FTSE 250, towards those that explain the complexity of the sector, the value of what we deliver for the resources we use and set out the success achieved. This can be supported with real examples, particularly of the impact we have on our students.

Of course, I don’t underestimate the challenge of getting positive stories out, but CUC is determined to be more proactive in future with its public positioning and we’ve already made a start with our submission to the Select Committee on Value for Money in HE. But there’s a lot more to be done, both at national and local level – with our students, our MPs and anyone that will listen. Unless we address some of the misconceptions that have arisen over the last year, and repair some of the damage that has been done to our reputation, we potentially face an even more challenging future than the one we can already see coming, including as it does industrial action, a new regulatory framework, a review of funding, and Brexit.

And on that note: Happy New Year.

All the above represent the personal views of John Rushforth and do not necessarily represent the views of CUC.