Saturday, 9 June 2018

Bolton VC George Holmes's Pay Rise: Why doesn't the yacht get rocked?

This week it emerged that the University of Bolton's VC awarded himself a pay increase of £30k (see https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-manchester-44382258) plus pension benefits which take his total to £295k (see https://www.theguardian.com/education/2018/jun/06/bolton-university-boss-given-66000-pay-rise-last-year). If this considerable financial reward was for "bringing embarrassing attention upon oneself as a leader of a university" then perhaps there could be some justification. After all, George Holmes has been in the press quite a lot over the last few years:



Under the perverse rationality of late capitalism, only the logic that permits the likes of Philip Green to get away with screwing BHS, the directors of Carillion to bring chaos to national infrastructure projects, or Donald Trump to become US president could excuse this. That this is a university which exists to serve the public good rubs salt in the wound. And it's a hell of a lot of money.

We live in astonishing times when it's not uncommon to hear executives talk about earning "only" £100k. "Only"? WTF! Holmes clearly thought he was earning "only" £220k, and so bumped his total package including pension benefits up to £295k. And whose money is it in the end? He's filling his pockets with cash his students will work for over the next 30 years. Who would say this doesn't stink?

Well, it turns out, quite a lot of powerful people - not least the governors of the university - seem completely oblivious to the outrageousness of this behaviour. Instead they talk of his "performance" - by which they mean that the university continues to raise cash from the living bodies of students who sign up for courses (but a high proportion of whom leave early), and whose indebtedness is managed by the government and sold-off to private companies who reward their shareholders (how many Vice Chancellors have shares in the companies dealing in student loan debt?)

Everyone knows that universities have governance problems these days (see https://www.timeshighereducation.com/features/hbos-and-london-met-case-studies-in-poor-governance/2004131.article, https://wonkhe.com/blogs/registrarism-university-governance-with-a-capital-g/). So what about the politicians? Theresa May threatened to sack Nadhim Zahawi, MP, for his attendance at the Presidents Club. Nobody questioned the position of Holmes after the university released a similar peculiar excuse (see https://www.timeshighereducation.com/news/bolton-v-c-felt-uncomfortable-attending-presidents-club-dinner). Who could? What if he was head of a primary school? How could he possibly have defended his presence, however 'shocked' he was? It seems that because we have turned universities into "businesses", the behaviour of their leaders is measured against the slimy behaviour of "captains of industry" rather than public servants. Let's turn schools into businesses too! Oh - we've done that, and indeed one of Holmes's professors at the University helped to establish an academy chain, Bright Tribe: https://www.theguardian.com/education/2016/mar/22/parent-governor-schools, which became involved in a number of failed schools projects where Holmes seemed to pop-up as a governor. That's not to mention the UTC set up on Bolton's Campus which received a damning report from the Education Funding Agency: https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/financial-management-and-governance-review-bolton-utc. This criticised, among other things, a payment of £209,862 to Bright Tribe where there was "no evidence of a formal procurement exercise".

What networks of influence keep people like this safe even under conditions where most in such positions would be forced to resign?

The University, like others, has been courting figures within the establishment, national and local government. This might be defended as "academic work": but in the world of modern universities, with sky-high salaries of the bosses and high-stakes to match, nothing is what it seems any more: there is a point at which "academic work" becomes "political lobbying". These are not bad people, but one can't help wondering whether the sense of entitlement which characterises Holmes's behaviour is shared by a few of them. If Holmes isn't entitled to his wealth, then maybe there would be awkward questions raised about others... Or if a failed initiative pursued by Bolton University is closely tied to government policy (like University Technical Colleges), then forcing him to atone for his failure might compromise the government's reputation. So best not rock the yacht...

But the list of individuals and organisations who have had engagements with the University recently is interesting. Not a yacht-rocker among them!




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