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League tables, executive pay and Birkbeck

Sir Harvey McGrath, Chair of Governors of Birkbeck, discusses recent media coverage.

Birkbeck, University of London, Malet Street building
Birkbeck, University of London, Malet Street building

As the new year dawns, the debate about university executive pay continues and, over the break, Birkbeck came in for some criticism in the media. This will be of obvious concern to our community - our staff, students, alumni and all our supporters and stakeholders. 

In the face of recent misleading media articles, the College would like to reassure all of those who put their faith in us - for their education, their livelihoods, their time and resources - that Birkbeck remains steadfastly committed to its unique mission and to the value, importance and relevance of what we do as a higher education institution. 

On New Year’s Eve, the Sunday Times compared the salaries of heads of universities to university performance as measured against its own, self-published Good University Guide. The Sunday Times story itself acknowledged: "Birkbeck’s unusual constitution - the university admits most of its students without traditional qualifications - depressed its rank significantly in its first appearance in the guide this year." 

However, this caveat is lost in the face of the headlines and absent from most subsequent reporting.  The assertion is that the difference between the Master of Birkbeck Professor David Latchman’s pay and Birkbeck’s low Good University Guide ranking makes us one of the ‘worst universities’.

This is not true. In reality, Birkbeck is one of the top 30 institutions marked out by significant success in both the official government frameworks for measuring performance in teaching and research: the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) and the Research Excellence Framework (REF). 

It is absolutely right that universities and other high-profile institutions should be held to public account, but the scrutiny should be based on a fair comparison and the proper context. 

Birkbeck is a complete one-off in the UK: the country’s only evening university, accepting many students without formal qualifications or as the first in their families to go to university on to predominantly part-time courses.  These differences mean that we do not always fare well when compared in league tables constructed by the media. 

We take students on the basis of potential, work or life experience, not just A-level scores. This approach is fundamental to our mission, of value to the higher education sector and the country’s economy, but it counts against us in a league table. 

We support students whilst they balance their studies with the pressures of work and looking after their families. But, because they are juggling study, work and family life, fewer of our students complete their course than those studying in the mainstream of the sector; again, this counts against us in a league table. 

League tables are partial measures, not conclusive assessments. However, in the government’s official assessments of quality and performance, Birkbeck was ranked 30th nationally for research excellence and intensity in the REF, with three departments in the top 10 nationally. 

The TEF highlighted that our institutional culture ‘facilitates, recognises and rewards excellent teaching and a curriculum at the forefront of research’. Stories that brand us ‘worst’, when, in fact, we are different, make our job that bit harder today. The College community will respond - individually and collectively - and continue to communicate the true value and worth of Birkbeck. 

Success at Birkbeck over the last decade has been hard won under the most challenging of circumstances. It is commonplace to highlight change and turbulence in the higher education sector, but few institutions have faced the direct threats Birkbeck has experienced. 

In 2007-08 a government policy change withdrew support from students studying lower or equivalent level qualifications, which meant 40% of our teaching funding was withdrawn. With effective and focused leadership and the commitment of its staff, Birkbeck transformed itself and its teaching provision, emerging successfully from a blow that would have capsized many institutions. 

Another blow to our core offering came with the introduction of higher tuition fees in 2012, sparking a dramatic decline in part-time student numbers, which have fallen by 40%. Again, the College has responded robustly, creating new, flexible and intensive study opportunities to suit the changed circumstances faced by our students. We continue to campaign for part-time students nationally. 

Professor Latchman has led Birkbeck with distinction and success through these turbulent times and has set out ambitious plans for the development of the College as we move forward to our 200th anniversary in 2023. 

Our Remuneration Committee takes its responsibility for good governance seriously. It operates independently and robustly. It will continue to review its procedures in the light of the developing guidance for the sector. 

Birkbeck is, of course, sensitive to the ongoing debate about executive university pay. We believe that the context for this debate should be the success of Birkbeck, the strength and resilience it demonstrates as an institution and the collective pride it takes in fulfilling its mission. 

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