We found out if your uni’s Vice Chancellor got a pay rise during the pandemic

A £185,000 bonus sounds pretty spicy right now

Half of the universities in the Russell Group gave their bosses an overall pay rise in 2019-20, newly-released accounts have revealed.

In a year when students had to push for rent refunds, no-detriment policies, and tuition fee refunds, 12 of the 24 elite universities paid their Vice Chancellors more than in 2018-19.

In fact, the average overall pay packet for a Russell Group head honcho was £389,340 – up £8,000 from the year before.

Exeter’s now-retired head Sir Steve Smith was the highest-paid Russell Group boss last year, with a £185,000 bonus for his performance over the previous seven years taking his total renumeration to £584,000.

Meanwhile, embattled Manchester boss Dame Nancy Rothwell was the lowest-paid, with a total package of £253,000 – £13,000 less than the previous year. Rothwell is facing a vote of no confidence over the university’s shambolic handling of the pandemic, but has waived a pay rise for the previous five years.

The total pay packets are made up of base salary, pensions, benefits-in-kind like rent-free houses, and bonuses.

Despite the increases, a number of Vice Chancellors made voluntary “salary sacrifices”, giving back part of their salary as the financial impact of the pandemic became clear.

Bristol’s Hugh Brady sacrificed £25,000 of his £300,000 salary. Nottingham’s Shearer West made a similar sacrifice, but also donates £1,000 a month to the uni’s student hardship fund. Newcastle’s Chris Day also waived £12,900 of his salary, while Koen Lamberts of Sheffield gave back £27,000, and Cambridge’s Stephen Toope returned £27,750.

Yet, in some cases these salaries were not enough to stop their overall pay rising.

Baroness Minouche Shafik, the director of the LSE, sacrificed £13,000 of her 2019-20 salary because of the pandemic. However, even with this sacrifice, her overall remuneration went up by £16,000 to £507,000. The LSE says her salary sacrifice has continued this academic year, and will total almost £60,000.

Imperial’s under-fire boss Alice Gast – who has refused to quite despite admitting she bullied colleagues – bagged the second-highest pay package, totalling £527,400. This includes accommodation benefits to the tune of £118,000 – the money Imperial could bring in if it was rented on the sky-high London market. Imperial College says she must live in the property “as a condition of her employment and is regularly used for College events, meetings and business.”

At Birmingham, Sir David Eastwood’s £61,000 bonus took his total remuneration to £460,000. However, the university says this was decided in October 2019 and based on performance in the previous academic year.

The university says this bonus and pay was decided in October 2019, and that his total pay package for 2020-21 would fall to £397,000.

A number of universities also had a mixture of Vice Chancellors between the two academic years, which can affect the total pay, and the figures for each year include where universities had more than one holder of the top office. For example, York, where an interim Vice Chancellor in the previous year and relocation costs for the new Vice Chancellor pushed the total pay for 2019-20 up by £64,771 on the year before. At Sheffield, the 2019 figures include two months of a higher salary for ex-VC Keith Burnett, pushing that year’s figures up in comparison to 2019-20.

The accounts also revealed that a number of unis explicitly consider how much other highly-paid Russell Group bosses take home when deciding how much to pay their own leader. Bristol’s Brady bagged a pay rise to £300,000 after his pay was found to be “below the Vice-Chancellor median for Russell Group universities”, while the accounts of Birmingham, Warwick, and Leeds also made mention to other Russell Group salaries.

Former education minister Lord Andrew Adonis said the pay rises beggared belief.

“All this money should be going into student support – including better mental health services which are more vital than ever before. Overpaid vice chancellors should be taking pay cuts not salary hikes,” he said.

UCU general secretary Jo Grady told The Tab: “Eye watering salaries for vice-chancellors whilst some staff struggle to make ends meet are a source of shame for the university sector. Most staff have seen their pay held down whilst spending the year under huge strain working to support students during the pandemic.

“Too many staff are suffering from stress, anxiety, heavy workloads and job insecurity, and some universities have even exploited the pandemic to cut staff on insecure contracts. There is a gaping chasm between how they and vice-chancellors have been treated.

“It is galling to see so many university staff suffering in the midst of Covid, whilst those at the top are able to isolate themselves from its impact.”

Related stories recommended by this writer:

Despite the pandemic, these students from low-income backgrounds bagged Oxbridge places

These are the unis targeted by the most graduate employers in 2021

Ranked: The percentage of students who actually drop out of each Russell Group uni