It has been a riveting watch.

The three days of Paula Vennell’s testimony have demolished forever the idea that those at the top of institutions like the Post Office are hugely skilled people worth gigantic salaries. “I am not a legal expert”, Paula said. “I am not technically minded”. “I have no skills in software development”. “I relied on the expertise of others in my team”. For this, the Post Office paid her £5.1 m during her time at the helm, peaking at £718,300 in 2018. That year her base salary was £253,800 and she earned £390,800 in bonuses (plus pensions and other benefits).

Paula readily accepted that there were no bugs in Horizon. Anyone who has ever written code or worked with a large piece of complex software knows that some bugs always remain, perhaps rare and obscure. This should have been a massive red flag that what she was hearing from her IT Director was untrustworthy. But Paula had never written computer code and had no relevant insight or skills.

When you have no expertise, then you have to rely on the judgements of others. You lack the knowledge and critical thinking skills to do otherwise. So, at the top of the hierarchy, we usually find an individual like Paula who never accepts any responsibility for the things that go wrong. She has simply taken advice from the senior management team, the Legal Department, or Human Resources. However, if things go well, the ‘Remuneration Committee’ normally finds that this is all because of the outstanding leadership of the individual at the top.

People just like Paula Vennells run our water companies, our energy, our public transport, our NHS and sit on the boards of all major companies. And of course they run our Universities. In fact, the huge salary, the readiness to accept uncritically the untruths of her senior management team and the unwillingness to accept personal responsibility all suggest that Paula has a fantastic career in higher education management ahead of her.

There are many similarities between Paula Vennells and some of our Vice Chancellors.

First, Vice Chancellors are usually imported after a global search. Parachuted in from a different University sometimes from a different country, they have no option but to rely on the senior management team around them. Just like Vennells, they have to take the advice and rely on the judgements of others. Normally senior management control the flow of information to a new Vice Chancellor. If there are ongoing problems in the University, Vice Chancellors have little option but to follow the lead of those who have been there much longer than they have. So, they can evade responsibility with ease when the catastrophe strikes.

Second, Vice Chancellors are well paid, yet not held to account. Two recent examples will suffice. Vice Chancellor Ian Diamond told the University of Aberdeen that he was retiring in August 2017. However, his formal notice period was triggered only after he had actually left his post, nearly a year later. Incredibly, his formal notice period began only after his actual notice period had ended. This meant he continued to be paid long after he had left. The Scottish Funding Council reviewed the payment which was in the region of £280,000. Eventually, Prof Diamond was asked to repay £119,000, but he did not respond. The University of Aberdeen elected not to pursue the matter in a court of law. Now, after his tenure, the University of Aberdeen is facing a £15 million deficit and — amongst other cuts — its Modern Languages department may not survive intact.

David Richardson, Vice Chancellor of the University of East Anglia, stepped down with immediate effect in 2023. This was after it emerged that the institution faced a £30 million deficit for 2023-2024, rising to a £45 million deficit in three years time. After leadership so poor that he was effectively booted out, David Richardson still accepted a £97,000 pay-off equivalent to six months’ salary in lieu of notice. This means he received a final pay package of £371,000 for the seven months he served as Vice Chancellor last year. Here, the axe has fallen primarily on Arts and Humanities lecturers at UEA who are being made redundant.

So Paula Vennells has all the necessary attributes for a Vice Chancellorship.

She won’t be going to prison. She is too fragrant.

She is coming to a University near you.

Categories: Blog


Anonymous · 26 May 2024 at 18:04

Given the lucrative nature of the job and Vennell’s talent for avoiding accountability—much like the University itself—I suspect she will soon be warmly welcomed as the Vice-Chancellor of the University of Kent.

There, she can spend years in a gnostic contemplation of the intricacies of doilies, refining the art of combining neo-Boadiccean brooches with pastel power suits, the phenomenology of the VC office as an epistemic horizon, and the merits of chewing a bite from a cucumber sandwich exactly three times between each sip of Harod’s finest Earl Grey tea. Occasionally, she might emerge to grimace through photo opportunities while shaking the hand of a Chinese or Saudi diplomat, all while raking in a salary that could pay off the debt of a sub-Saharan African or Central American country tenfold. · 26 May 2024 at 20:21

As you say, University of Kent is looking for a new Vice Chancellor! It would be very interesting to see the advertisement!

The Vice Chancellorship of Glasgow University and Brighton University are advertised here

Universities usually use an executive search company like Saxton Bampfylde to provide a suitable grifter or megalomaniac

    Anonymous · 27 May 2024 at 23:05

    I didn’t know that, but it genuinely wouldn’t surprise me if Vennells or some other figure from the post office or blood bank scandal had already filed their application for the VC vacancy at the University of Kent.

    It makes me wonder how many vice-chancellors and their cronies in the administration of UK higher education have backgrounds, corporate or otherwise, just as corrupt as Vennells’, that never came to light.

    I have no doubt that in the neoliberal managerial university, it is this kind of cascading top-down toxicity, nebulous leadership, and lack of accountability from the top of the totem pole, as you’ve described in the post, that provides a perfect natural habitat and organizational ecology for the bully boys and girls of academia to thrive and be enabled and protected.

    It is antithetical to any sort of democratic leadership of these institutions, absolutely criminal and often deadly in its consequences, and has been one of the main factors that has caused so many institutions, despite their propaganda and marketing, to become moral sphincters.

    I genuinely look forward to the day when UK university management and the thousands of scandals they routinely hide from public view receive the same sort of public scrutiny and criticism as the post office and NHS. I strongly suspect that time may be just around the corner.

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