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These are my Principals, and If You Don’t Like Them I Have Others (February 2011)

This article was first published on Bella Caledonia.

Principals of Scottish Universities, currently undertaking drastic restructuring, recently gave themselves an 8.5% pay rise to an average of about £250,000.

(With research assistance from Stefan Buettner)


Put this in relation to the First Minister. The highest-ranking servant to the Scottish people earns about £135,000: the only other Scottish public servant above £100k is the Lord Advocate at £110,000. David Cameron’s starting salary as PM was £142,500. Relatively lower ranking public servants, the Principals (and also some other more-or-less public employees) reward themselves double this or more. Not a rarity in the UK where council heids o’ depairtments can earn on average more than the PM. Does this not call for reform in times when thousands of medium- and low-ranked public servants are made redundant and the higher-ranking people in quangos, NHS and local authorities practically decide upon their own salaries, and conditions of employment which often make them difficult and expensive to dismiss?

In international comparison, the numbers look even more peculiar. In Germany, for example all public pay has to follow the ‘Bundesbesoldungsgesetz’ (the federal public pay law) which gives a binding structure for all public employees, with variations being defined by the states for their employees and public service unions. Following this logic, the highest pay goes to the Federal President (£170,000) and the Federal Chancellor (£155,000). In Baden-Wuerttemberg, an example for the other Länder in Germany, University Principals earn their professorial-standard salary of £55,000 a year with negotiated extras for their functional role. But the total sum must not exceed £90,000 a year at the very maximum. After serving as Principal, they return to their standard professorial salary and pension rights.


In forty-five years in the university sector (14 in the UK and 31 in Germany) I have known roughly equal numbers of inspiring and indifferent principals. I don’t know what the best, Sir Walter Perry in the foundation years of the Open University, was paid – maybe £ 12,000 in 1969? – but his gift was to ‘get the sense’ of a staff he trusted and do his best as a team-leader of the administrators to make its ideas realisable. And there he would be at the Walton Hall bar, fag in mouth, whisky in hand, to argue the toss. Antony Jay, in Corporation Man reckoned the optimal type of organisation was a pyramid of twelve-groups capable of taking consensual decisions (Jesus had the right idea!). Something of the sort worked in the OU at this period, expanding out of the Planning Group to the Principal’s Committee (Deans and Admin), Faculties, Regional Offices, Course Teams, Working Groups. It was also glued together by the alternative communications/ survival skills developed by young idealists dumped in rural Bucks. My guess was that this benign feed-back ethos was also in the bricks of Walton Hall, left by the geeks and dons who had thirty years earlier set up Bletchley Park, with the computers and decrypters around ‘Enigma’ – and knew the ‘imperative command’ systems they were up against.

In Germany the formal university government structure was and is constipated, but the guarantees to academics of lehrfreiheit – freedom to teach – and to students of lernfreiheit – freedom to learn – favoured originality and staff-student co-operation within the seminar system. The notion of the Principal as CEO of a ‘Culture Industry/Cost Centre’ dualism seems to have been incubated in the same Frankenstein lab that gave us the mumbo-jumbo of MBAs serving the higher algebra of the Financial Services economy – and to be doomed to the same fate.


Thomas Carlyle in 1829 warned against the ‘steam intellect society’:

Instruction … is no longer an indefinable, tentative process, requiring a study of individual aptitudes, and a perpetual variation of means and methods … but a secure, universal straightforward business, to be conducted in the gross, by proper mechanism, with such intellect as comes to hand.

This implies the possibility of its opposite: which is more or less George Elder Davie’s ‘democratic intellect’. Carlyle had little time for universities save as libraries in which scholars like Sartor Resartus’s Prof Teufelsdroeckh could study ‘things in general’, but this was the age of instruction in the workshop, the critical review, the mechanics’ institute, the public library.

The Universities (Scotland) Act of 1859 held out the prospect that every MA on the General Council could teach, effectively as privatdozent, while the university examined. Against bureaucracy, public relations and empire-building, the threat to the humanities and our libraries – a subject dies when students literally can’t read it – such a ‘guerrilla university’ may be necessary. That other OU veteran the late Dr Allan Macartney MEP thought up an ‘Independence Academy’ in the 1980s and the notion of such a network of compactseminars plus the university library and public library system plus Scottish hotels and B and B’s in the off season plus the resources of the web plus Holyrood at weekends …. might get off the ground – probably for rather less than the cost of running a Principal. Think about it, Mike Russell!

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