We attack vice-chancellors’ pay because we despise education
And by branding these highly qualified people as overpaid parasites we risk replacing them with incompetents
No, university vice-chancellors (VCs) are not being paid too much. Yet at least once a year VC compensation is flighted as a “scandal” in the media for salaries that range from about R1m to more than R4m.
Yes, there are extremes that must be condemned, such as paying leaders of public universities millions of rand in the form of annual or retirement “bonuses” as if these were private sector companies raking up huge profits from their business dealings; I would as minister of higher education require the nominal boss of the VC, the chairperson of council, to pay back that money.
Another extreme, less talked about, is when some VCs actually get homes for which they do not pay; that, too, must stop. But the basic salaries are hardly competitive in comparable industries.
So what is going on? Underlying this media criticism, I suspect, is yet another example of how we demean education in our country.
But first, who are these people and what does a VC actually do? To begin with, most of these men and women are highly qualified in their disciplines. They count in their number world-class physicians, mathematicians, engineers, clinical psychologists and among the world’s leading social scientists.
It is not only the years of study towards the doctorate that qualified them with the highest degree but the years of experience in business, industry and in climbing the slippery ladder of academic advancement from lecturer to professor to dean and member of the senior executive of a university.
It is not simply that they achieved these things over the course of their careers, it is that they excelled, with more than a few rated or rate-able by the National Research Foundation as internationally renowned in their fields. And then VCs require basic expertise across many interconnected fields to competently run a complex organisation such as human resources, higher education finance, innovation, technology, teaching and accreditation.
It is, moreover, unfair and dangerous to portray VCs as conscienceless parasites feeding off the public purse. Notice that almost every university leader in recent years has publicly pledged to return part of their salaries in the form of bursaries to students in need. And many more do this without public knowledge or fanfare, including sharing their homes with students in need of accommodation.
Here’s the harsh reality. Several of these VCs could, as experts, earn four or five times their basic salary by going into professional practice or as consultants in their areas of expertise, or simply sitting on three or four company boards with relatively little stress. Yet many of them stay on as VCs because of their idealism about higher learning and their commitment to the academic project. It comes at a cost.
Imagine a job in which you are constantly under stress because of declining subsidies from the government, the need to increase revenue streams through national and international fundraising, the pressure (political and financial) to improve throughput rates of students coming from a failing school system, the tragic crises of campus rapes and suicides, and then of course the constant threat of disruption and violence through ongoing protests.
Forget UCT and Wits where protests are intermittent and generally mild; think Tshwane University of Technology, Fort Hare and Walter Sisulu where hardly a week passes without unions or students threatening to bring down the institution. Now try to sleep at night as you worry about the safety of other people’s children, about your long-suffering staff and of course the protection of public property. That is why some VCs resign or retire early. The costs are too high and the benefits less clear.
So why this annual attack on VC remuneration and not the inflated salaries of senior civil servants or the tens of millions of rand taken by corporate executives?
It is because we despise education. Of all public services, education should be free. Education is, to coin a phrase, good for nothing. That is why we pay teachers and principals so little money, placing many of these professionals at the mercy of loan sharks. Their job is a calling, we tell ourselves, like hospice nurses or chaplains in the military.
By scandalising VCs because of their compensation we risk losing these university leaders and in their place attracting academically weak and professionally incompetent jobseekers – people without the scholarly standing or management expertise to run 21st-century universities.
Maybe then we will be content – when our top universities simply resemble another state-owned enterprise.