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Bristol universities accused over ‘murky’ pay rises

University of Bristol

By Christopher Brown

As strike action looms over staff pay, union said decisions made by universities to determine pay increases for vice-chancellors were unaccountable

Bristol’s universities have been accused of refusing to release details of their vice-chancellors’ pay in a report into senior academic pay released last week.

The University and College Union (UCU) said the University of the West of England (UWE) did not respond to a request for the minutes of its remuneration committee – the body tasked with determining the vice-chancellor’s pay rise. Bristol University sent through redacted minutes of its committee.

UCU said the decisions made by universities to determine pay increases for vice-chancellors were unaccountable and “murky”.

The report comes as some staff at the two Bristol institutions prepare to take strike action, in which marking of students’ work will stop or marks will be withheld, from April 28.

The action could prevent students from graduating and applying applying for jobs or places in further education.

UCU said it wanted to discover why vice-chancellors got such arbitrary pay rises. Last year, the UWE vice-chancellor Professor Steve West received an 11.3% pay rise to take his salary to £267,000. Professor Eric Thomas at the University of Bristol only got a 0.4% rise, although he still enjoyed a £283,000 salary.

The University of Bristol was one of the 27 institutions out of 139 that sent through its minutes. However, UCU said it was concerned that the vice-chancellor appeared to have had the final say on his pay for the year. Although the minutes say Eric Thomas indicated he did not think a salary increase was appropriate, the union questioned why a vice-chancellor was influencing the supposedly independent remuneration committee.

On average, vice-chancellors enjoyed a 5% pay rise last year, while university staff were offered a rise of 1%. The UCU argues that staff have seen their wages drop by 13% in real terms since 2009.

UCU general secretary, Sally Hunt, said: “Millions of pounds of public money are spent on vice-chancellors’ salaries, yet their pay rise is decided behind closed doors with no accountability.

“The time has come for the lid to be lifted on the murky world of remuneration committees and senior pay in our universities. Students are paying £9,000 a year to study for a degree and they, and the taxpayer, have a right to know why so much of their money is going on paying the vice-chancellor.”

UWE has, meanwhile, written to all staff warning them of the consequences of taking part in the potential marking boycott later this month.

Talks between unions and vice-chancellors’ representatives are due to take place on April 15. In a letter to staff, UWE said any staff taking part in the action would be breaking their contracts and would have pay withheld.

The letter went on to say: “Such [strike] action could have a very serious impact on our students, including their ability to progress or secure employment, as well as on the University as a whole.”

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