Some readers have expressed incredulity at the expenses claims, including one for 2p, submitted by members of the senior management group of Glasgow University, reported here last week. Let me assure the sceptics that all the claims are in the public domain – and from an unimpeachable source at that. It was the university itself, in an itemised quarterly list, that faithfully documented the claims. Presented with such a treasure trove, it only remained to select the funniest and arrange them in some order of ludicrosity.
Sadly, however, the admirable practice of publicly accounting for the management's expenses appears to have ceased. The last claim for which there is any record is a hotel bill of £1,318.12 for a professor's attendance at a conference in New Orleans 14 months ago. Since then – nothing. Perhaps the university would care to explain why it no longer makes such information available. I shouldn't hold your breath, though.
At the same time the university should tell us why most of the management's air fares were excluded from the figures – omitting, for example, the small matter of the £31,300 allegedly racked up by the high-flying principal, Anton Muscatelli, over the course of a single year. (Though I observe that, unlike one of his colleagues, he doesn't seem to charge for flight socks.)
Professor Muscatelli – Sir Anton as he has been known since the Queen's birthday – is on record as stating that Glasgow University, in common with most universities, is facing a 'challenging environment' financially. Exactly. Money's tight all over the shop. Save the bawbees. That is one of the reasons why journalists are entitled to scrutinise the expenses incurred by organisations drawing on the taxpayer's largesse – and why, if we find something worth mocking, we have no less than a civic duty to go ahead and mock it.
But now I feel a responsibility to be constructive: to help the university put its house in order. In that generous spirit, I offer three simple suggestions:
First, there should be a cap on hospitality to prevent any repetition of such extravagances as the £100+ a head dinner for six hosted by a member of the senior management group. Let's get it down to a maximum of, say, 50 quid. You can get a modest gnocchi at the Hotel du Vin for less.
Second, if anybody wants to buy a gift for an academic colleague as a token of appreciation or esteem – be it a bottle of malt whisky or anything else – absolutely no problem. Just don't expect the university to foot the bill. Likewise, there should be no question of a publicly subsidised employer meeting the cost of toiletries, shaving razors and aspirins, even if the purchaser happens to be abroad on university business and suffering from a bit of a headache, poor lamb, or worried about that tell-tale 5 o'clock shadow.
Third, because there's always a third, Professor Muscatelli and his vice-principals should exercise restraint in the routine claiming for all those light refreshments. At a time when the poor of London are being burned out of their homes because of a failure to house them safely, the spectacle of senior academics charging for every tea and coffee at City Airport (among their many points of departure around the globe) looks ridiculous, even slightly offensive.
Am I hopeful that these suggestions will be embraced by the senior management group? I'm not. Far from it. Indeed I understand that it would suit them very well if the Scottish Review could be silenced pronto. But until they succeed in shutting us up, we might as well be frank.
So let's be frank. I couldn't care less how such people account for their lives. I concern myself with their petty expense claims only because I suspect that such claims are the outward symptoms of a deeper problem: what is grandly known these days as a culture.
Here is a question: your starter for 10 grand.
How much do you think members of the senior management group (excluding the principal on his 322k a year) are paid? Before I started taking an interest in their affairs, I would have guessed around £100,000 and would have considered that over-generous.
How naive was I. All of them earn at least double that.
In the absence of any detailed breakdown, I'm unable to say how much they get in excess of £200,000. But figures from the TaxPayers' Alliance, which conducted a comprehensive survey of executive pay in the higher education sector, look pretty reliable: all the more so for being based on information supplied by the institutions themselves.
Only one university in Britain levied a charge for this information. Surprise, surprise, its name was Glasgow. From the survey we learn that 223 employees of that institution receive more than £100,000 a year, 65 more than £150,000, 14 more than £200,000 and one (Anton Muscatelli himself) more than £300,000: a staggering total of 303.
The fact that the principal's deputies – the very people who tendered the expenses claims that the Scottish Review exposed to the unflattering light of day – are earning at least £50,000 a year more than the prime minister and enjoy approximate pay parity with Scotland's most senior judge is astonishing. But it is far from being the whole story.
Using data provided by the TaxPayers' Alliance, I was able to place Glasgow University's colossal executive payroll in a UK context. Of the 156 higher education establishments surveyed, only six have more than 303 employees earning more than £100,000. Four are in the severely competitive London market; the others are Cambridge and Oxford. Setting these special cases aside, Glasgow is out on its own, though not in a good way.
And this is still not the whole story. At the other end of the academic spectrum, almost half (48.7%) of Glasgow University's teaching staff (including those both researching and teaching) are employed on zero hours or 'atypical' contracts. Many undergraduates are being taught by lecturers surviving on basic subsistence without job security. These practices are common to many universities in the self-appointed Russell Group of 'leading' institutions. What makes Glasgow University one of the worst offenders is the grotesque disparity in its case between the vast salaries of the 303 at the top and its shabby treatment of all those at the bottom.
Scotland's largest city, with its chronic poverty, wretched health and profound inequalities, is witnessing the creation of an academic rich class – a class that effectively regulates itself, presides over a deplorable system for employing junior staff, is impervious to appeals for moderation, is contemptuous of criticism, and enjoys the fawning regard of the political establishment.
The word that springs to mind is hubris. There will be people at Glasgow University who even know what it means.
Click here for University Challenge: Part I of Kenneth Roy's investigation