Expensive or Expedient? Muscatelli’s Money

Published

Credit: Jonny Mowat

George Marsden
Writer

“Anton Muscatelli, vice-chancellor of the University of Glasgow, claimed for £3.30 Starbucks coffee bought in Beijing, a £2 bottle of still water at Malmaison London and £3.55 for coffee and cake at a Pret a Manger in Trafalgar Square in his £7,270 expenses bill.” So went an article in the Times listing the apparent frivolities claimed on expenses by some university leaders, where Mr Muscatelli was by no means exceptional. The headline ran “University heads claim for water and bus”; palpably derisory (especially with Sally Hunt of the University and College Union describing the goings on as “profligate spending”), it would seem as if the usually Tory-tame Times is indulging some soak-the-rich populism.

If it is, it should find itself in good company. In 2015, the Daily Mail published an article headlined “Fat Cat University Heads on £600,000”, and an article in the Daily Telegraph from May 2016 did much the same. This issue certainly isn’t new, begging the question as to why it has yet to be resolved. In 2009, the year Mr Muscatelli became principal and vice-chancellor, the endowment of the University of Glasgow was £102.5 million. By 2013 it was £153.9 million and as of 2016, it stood at £170.9 million. So as not to descend to the level of crude simplification enjoyed by the Daily Mail, I should note that the endowment figures cannot give one a full impression of a university’s financial state, though they clearly indicate some success. Perhaps Mr Muscatelli’s expenses are exorbitant, but the charge that they and his £276,000 salary are completely unmerited is nonsense, especially considering the University Court’s unanimous decision to reappoint him in 2012 after three years in the job.

It seems that what our Vice-Chancellor spends the university’s cash on doesn’t leave a grave financial dent, then. Of course, the money itself isn’t the real issue; rather the fact that he can spend the money while others can’t is what some find uncomfortable. While those shouting “fat cats” tend to be the pitchfork, mob cajoling types, their rhetoric stems from a legitimate grievance. But the facts suggest that Glasgow University mightn’t be one of these problem institutions.

For example, according to The Herald in 2012, the University’s senior management team (which includes Mr Muscatelli) saw a 3.6% pay rise while the salaries of lecturers rose by 1%. Now, while this fact may be spun into an effective strike-day rallying cry, I would question if it really is that unfair. Is it not true that the management or leadership in any institution or company earn more than those they manage or lead? And do we not only accept that as fact, but also acknowledge its benefits? Indeed, revolutionaries from Moscow to Havana found it impossible to part with this particular habit.

By way of showing the pervasiveness of this practice, why not take a look at trade unions? According to 2011 THE article, Sally Hunt earned a gross salary of £98,238 in 2010 as general secretary of the University and College Union, while the Daily Telegraph reported in 2014 that Unite’s Len McCluskey earned £140,000 that year. I don’t list these figures as a way of calling these individuals hypocrites; like universities, trade unions are valuable and charges of “champagne socialist” shouldn’t discourage their leaders from enjoying themselves. After all, if you can’t take champagne with your socialism, then what the bloody hell is the point of it?

Admittedly these sources are dated, but what they serve to show is, like Mr Muscatelli, plenty of other people earn a salary much higher than the national average. While Mr Muscatelli takes home considerably more than the two union leaders, that is merely indicative of the differences between universities and trade unions, rather than any greed on our vice-chancellor’s part. And more importantly, if any of the three named above were to find an enthusiasm for austerity and surrendered their salaries, it would be unlikely their respective employers could affect much change with a few hundred thousand pounds or so.

There are some university heads who deserve castigation for their salary increases. In May last year, the vice-chancellor of Falmouth University (an institution of 4,200 students, where Glasgow has 26,000) was awarded a raise of 25.1%, while her staff saw an increase of just 1.1%. That I can accept as an example self-serving power, but I find it hard to see Muscatelli’s case as an equivalent. To me, lumping him in with the above is another symptom of a very puritan, very British and insidious anti-rich populism that the media occasionally uses to rile up the “man on the street.” There may indeed come a time when Mr Muscatelli does abuse his position for his own gain, but, pace tabloid press, that time has not arrived.