Lord Adonis insists Stephen Toope's salary is symptomatic of "shameless greed"Composite: Louis Ashworth

Labour peer Lord Adonis today reaffirmed his opposition to high vice-chancellor pay packets in a letter to the University of Cambridge, published here. He called Stephen Toope “grossly overpaid” and said his pay is a “straightforward matter of morality and justice”, while insisting he admires Cambridge and wished it not to involve itself with “shameless greed”.

In an interview with Varsity published on Friday, Adonis hit out at the vice-chancellor’s £365,000 pay packet, suggesting he had “blackmailed” the University, and that he “should go back to Canada” if he took the job just for the money.

This comes in the midst of a national debate over senior pay at universities, which saw the vice-chancellor of the University of Bath, Dame Glynis Breakwell, announce her resignation after her £468,000 pay packet was criticised by lecturers, Lord Adonis, and the University and Colleges Union (UCU). 

Accounts for Bath Spa University also showed that its former vice-chancellor Christina Slade was paid £429,000 "for loss of office" as well as her regular £250,000 salary and other benefits. University vice-chancellors earn an average of £249,000 per year.

Professor Ian White, master of Jesus College and head of the committee which nominated Cambridge vice-chancellor Stephen Toope, issued a strongly-worded letter to Adonis, obtained by Varsity, calling his comments “ill-informed and entirely unfounded” and “an insult to the integrity of the vice-chancellor”.

In this letter, also published below, White says he was “concerned and surprised” to read Adonis’ remarks and lauded Stephen Toope’s “impeccable academic credentials” and “exceptional record of leadership”. Toope, the first non-British vice-chancellor of Cambridge, was formerly Director of the University of Toronto’s Munk School of Global Affairs and, before that, vice-chancellor of the University of British Columbia.

The letter by the University of Cambridge in full

Dear Lord Adonis,

I was concerned and surprised to read, in an interview published by one of our student newspapers, remarks attributed to you.

The comments quoted by Varsity were ill-informed and entirely unfounded. They are a slur on the good name of the University, and an insult to the integrity of its Vice-Chancellor.

Professor Stephen J. Toope was appointed to the role of Vice-Chancellor after an exhaustive global recruitment process.

The Search Committee I chaired agreed that his impeccable academic credentials, and his exceptional record of leadership at world-class higher education institutions, would make him an outstanding Vice-Chancellor. It was on this basis that the University Council, of which I was a member, made the final recommendation for appointment. The Regent House concurred with that judgement.

Your suggestion that he “blackmailed” the University is simply untrue. The remuneration package for the office of Vice-Chancellor was set by the University’s Council on advice from its Remuneration Committee before the interviews even took place. There was no negotiation sought by Professor Toope or offered by the University about the salary at any point in the recruitment process.

It is particularly dismaying to read such views reportedly expressed by someone who has been recognised as seeking to champion open borders and the free movement of talent – two issues of importance to the University and on which Professor Toope has repeatedly spoken out. We are saddened that this comes from an individual who has been known to stress the benefits of welcoming migrants to the UK.

While the University welcomes discussion about levels of senior pay, the reported remarks about the Vice-Chancellor blackmailing the University are wrong, and we ask that you reflect this in any further public comments.

Yours sincerely,

I. H. White

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White goes on to insist any suggestion of blackmail “is simply untrue”, and that Toope’s pay was decided even before the interviews for his job took place, adding, however, that the University “welcomes” discussion on senior pay. He also says it is “dismaying” to read such views from someone who is in favour of open borders and free movement. Lord Adonis is a leading figure opposed to the UK’s exit from the European Union.

The letter by Lord Adonis in full

Dear Professor White,

Thank you for your letter.

Your Vice-Chancellor is grossly overpaid. He is a public official who leads an outstanding university where almost all his colleagues in highly responsible positions, including eminent professors of far greater distinction, are paid a fraction of his £365,000 salary.

Whether this overpayment is the responsibility of your committee, or a negotiation with the vice-chancellor himself, is immaterial. He should not be paid more than half his £365,000 salary, and if he was not prepared to accept the post on that basis then he should not have been recruited. This has nothing whatever to do with ‘free movement’ or ‘international talent’: it is a straightforward matter of morality and justice, and would apply equally if he were British.

As for his credentials, it is not obvious that the head of a Canadian university with a fraction of the international status and credentials of Cambridge ranks as exceptional. We are not talking about the president of Harvard or Princeton! But even if you did spot an outstanding new talent, the huge career advancement of leading Cambridge ought to have been sufficient to attract him without an obscene salary. I have no doubt that Cambridge could have secured the services of an equally good leader for a proper salary. Indeed, I could have recruited such a leader myself.

It seems to me that you do not appreciate the public - and university - sentiment about the escalating pay of vice-chancellors. The fat cat culture which, alas, Cambridge has bought into is unsustainable and, rightly, the subject of increasing public concern, including amongst your own academics and students. It will have to stop, and the only question is when you stop it.

I say this as a huge admirer of the University of Cambridge, one of the most outstanding public institutions in the world, which ought not to be a party to a culture of shameless greed. I have visited the University three times in the last month to talk at gatherings of your students. They are a credit to the university and to the country; and few of them would, I suspect, disagree with anything I have said in this letter.

With warm personal regards,

Andrew Adonis

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Adonis responded to these remarks by saying the issue “has nothing whatever to do with ‘free movement’ or ‘international talent’”, and that Toope’s excellence was “not obvious”, given his previous job as the head of a university “with a fraction of the international status and credentials of Cambridge”. He continues by saying “even if you did spot an outstanding new talent, the huge career advancement of leading Cambridge ought to have been sufficient to attract him without an obscene salary”.

He closes by saying that the University does not appreciate “the sentiment about the escalating pay of vice-chancellors” symptomatic of a “fat cat culture” which he says must end. He then states his support for Cambridge, but insists it “ought not to be a party to a culture of shameless greed”, and that few students would disagree with the content of his letter.

The University of Cambridge declined to comment on the letter by Lord Adonis.