CRITICISM of the pay of university principals has cropped up again in recent weeks, and looks unlikely to go away any time soon.

This criticism seems inevitable given it coincides with a fresh wave of strike action across 74 UK universities, scheduled for February and March. The disputes cover pension provision, as well as pay, equality, casualisation, and workloads.

Lecturers and other university staff have every right to pursue such disputes. Like so many others, across the public and private sectors, they have had to endure a grim real-terms squeeze on pay. This has coincided with a dismal economic performance over nearly a decade under the Conservatives, a painful squeeze on public spending, and an exacerbation of the UK’s problems over the last few years with the whole Brexit folly.

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Staff at universities do a very valuable job, and deserve to be paid a good salary for it. They should also be entitled to good pension rights. Companies have cut back their pension provision dramatically, but that does not mean everyone should have to take a hit.

At a broader level, those keen on hammering public spending seem at pains to peddle a view that everyone should have to share the private-sector pension misery. But why should they? People working in the public sector, or in taxpayer-funded organisations, have plenty of disadvantages relative to many private-sector employees who have the opportunity to earn fat bonuses. Such bonuses are even awarded in some cases just for unimaginative, and often counter-productive, cost-cutting.

What is somewhat lamentable is that the University and College Union is pointing the finger at the pay of principals, claiming they are in this context “out of touch”. University principals, when their pay is put in the context of what chief executives in the private sector earn, are generally about as far away from being fat cats as you could get.

The principals of the big universities, who in a Scottish context tend to earn around a few hundred thousand pounds annually, are in charge of major institutions with a global view, in a fast-changing world, each with many thousands of students and thousands of staff.

Their pay pales into insignificance relative to the chief executives of big publicly-quoted companies. The pay attached to corporate chief executive posts has increased spectacularly over the last quarter-century as an obsession with linking remuneration to performance seems, perhaps surprisingly in many cases, to have driven rewards upwards rather than downwards.

It is almost as if all sight of the absolute quantum of pay has been lost when it comes to stock market-listed companies, amid complex short-term bonuses and long-term incentive plans, granted in addition to salary.

In many industrial disputes, unions compare the pay of general staff with that of the bosses. However, the broader debate over the pay of university principals seems to be fuelled at times by some unfathomable view in society that people who work for an organisation which is taxpayer-funded, or are employed directly in the public sector, should somehow settle for much lower pay than those in comparable jobs in the private sector.

But why should this be? The work of teachers or nurses, or indeed university lecturers, is far more geared towards social good than many private-sector jobs which pay far more money.

Take, for example, professional management types who flit between industries of which they have little experience and who bring little but cost-cutting “expertise”. Such people seem to be in greater demand than ever, creating well-paid roles for themselves through permanent upheaval and change when it often seems that it would be best to handle a fast-changing environment with internal stability rather than turbulence. This upheaval creates challenges for those doing the actual jobs in such businesses.

Organisations in all sectors have to be run effectively, and adapt, but change for the sake of it is not what anyone needs. Worryingly, it seems this “change-is-the-only-constant” attitude is now also creating well-paid roles in the public sector for management or consultant types who are not needed to do the job, and at times have a net negative effect.

People talk about greater risk in the private sector. This is true for the entrepreneurs or families running their own businesses, and putting their capital on the line. However, while shouldering big responsibilities, the chief executive of a bank is not putting his or her capital on the line in the same way.

Professor Sir Anton Muscatelli, principal of the University of Glasgow, receives annual remuneration of around £300,000. The university has around 29,000 undergraduate and postgraduate students, from more than 140 countries. It has more than 8,000 employees, including in excess of 3,400 research and teaching staff. It is undertaking a £1 billion investment to expand campus research and teaching facilities, and has annual research income of more than £179 million.

David Duffy, chief executive of Clydesdale Bank owner Virgin Money, received remuneration of £3.4m in the year to last September. A substantial minority of shareholders lodged a protest vote against the bank’s remuneration report at the annual meeting last week.

A debate over the pay of bank chiefs, who have been cutting jobs and branches relentlessly over recent years, seems far more warranted than criticism of university principals’ rewards.