How universities can save millions – start cutting from the top

If universities need to find savings, they should look at the highest paid staff.

If universities need to find savings, they should look at the highest paid staff. Photo: AAP

As 38 public universities face budget cuts from Education Minister Simon Birmingham where can they find their own cuts?

With the taxpayer salary bill for Vice Chancellors (VC) in excess of $34 million each year, the superstructure of Vice Chancellors, Deputy Vice Chancellors (DVC), and Pro-Vice Chancellors (PVC) is an obvious starting point.

Reducing VC’s salary packages from an average $1 million per annum to only just over three times the average salary for a full professor, or about twice the salary of a Vice-Admiral in the Royal Australian Navy, would still leave them a hefty salary average of $600,000, while at the same time saving the taxpayer about $12 million each year.

Extending these salary savings across the whole superstructure of VCs, DVCs and PVCs would readily add a further saving for the taxpayer of at least $22 million per annum.

In total, while still ensuring higher echelon salaries in our public universities remain well above the salary average for ordinary Australians and for ordinary academics, the $34 million savings would make a significant contribution to funding our public sector universities.

Those working in the public sector university superstructure may well tell Senator Birmingham and the taxpayer that they manage businesses with average revenues of some $840 million. But they almost always neglect to explain that these savings largely comes from taxpayer dollars.

Clearly if the reality is that we are paying for their actual business skills then one would expect that over the past decade or so the private sector would have been busy poaching Vice Chancellors at an ever increasing rate and offering them even larger salary packages.

Our VCs well know that there is no evidence that this has been happening.

While they pretend to be academic and fiscal heroes, Vice Chancellors are certainly not the new superstars of business management with businesses across Australia seeking to recruit them to manage their teams.

Export awards ignore the natural pull to Australia

The uni chiefs may also trumpet all the export awards they have won, but again neglect to paint the full picture.

As they know, much of the pull factor to study in Australia is the chance to increase the possibility of gaining an Australian passport or, at the least, to stay safely rent-free in an Australian apartment or house investment property owned by family or friends back home, increasingly from the Indian subcontinent and from China.

Many of Australia’s VCs also like benchmarking their salaries against selected overseas university salaries rather than against the correct comparison, which is with universities achieving a similar world ranking as their own.

When this comparison is made, our VCs, like our politicians, are amazingly well paid.

Indeed, students and taxpayers may have a better understanding of why VCs and their entourage of DVCs and PVCs are so happy to be photographed with their students when they realise that at our largest universities, like Melbourne and Sydney, the superstructure team’s total annual take-home pay each year exceeds $3.9 million.

So, over the coming months when our Vice Chancellors band together to cry poor, let us all remember that they are paid heaps more than most Australians, including actual heroes like Corporal Cameron Baird, VC, MG the 100th Australian to be awarded a Victoria Cross who was killed in action in Afghanistan in June 2013 while on a salary of less than $100,000 per year.

Our university VCs are not Victoria Cross holders. They and their superstructure teams are extremely well-heeled public servants who can well-afford to absorb Senator Birmingham’s much-needed budget cuts.

Emeritus Professor Ross Fitzgerald is the author of 39 books, including the political satire Going Out Backwards: A Grafton Everest Adventure, which was shortlisted for the 2017 Russell Prize for Humour Writing.

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