University pay: there are questions to answer on falling salaries

Despite the economic downturn following the last recession, a real-terms fall in pay at UK universities since 2010-11 was still surprising, writes Simon Baker

May 5, 2017
Two hands exchanging money

Trawling through the average salary data for this year’s Times Higher Education pay survey was a sobering experience in many ways.

To discover that even the average professor in the UK – whose salary is not tied to a negotiated national pay spine and can be pushed up by demand-side pressures in the job market such as the research excellence framework – was still paid about £2,500 less last year in real terms than in 2010-11 was a bit of a shock.

Yes, general pay in the economy was hit badly by the banking-crash recession, and the real-terms salaries of some public sector professionals such as schoolteachers have been hit hard. But I would have thought that quasi-public organisations such as universities, which have largely escaped austerity cuts thanks to £9,000 tuition fees, might have been able to protect real-terms pay better.

Then there is the gulf in pay between black staff and their white counterparts as well as the shockingly low numbers of black staff at senior levels: that there are just 95 black professors in the whole of UK higher education will not be news to many people, but it should act as a renewed wake-up call for action.

On the gender pay gap, it would probably be wrong to say that there has been no progress in the past few years, with the difference in pay for all academics falling steadily. Digging into the issue did also reveal that there is a complex mix of factors that are often beyond individual universities’ control – the tendency for fewer women to work in some academic disciplines like engineering, for example, is a known issue that has wider explanations.

But alarm bells will be ringing that the professorial pay gap appears to have stalled, while some individual universities’ pay gaps seem unacceptably high and, in some cases, have got worse.

One point raised by those looking at the detailed figures we published on gender pay was that average salary data for women were missing from some universities.

It is probably worth pointing out that although we badge the feature a pay “survey”, it is in fact a tranche of data that THE commissions every year from the Higher Education Statistics Agency. Under its rules on publishing averages, Hesa anonymises statistics that are based on data (in this case salaries) from seven people or fewer. It does so because it could become possible to work out individual salaries if an average is based on a very small number of people.

Of course, this rule does introduce the quirk of flagging up which universities have so few female staff members that they didn’t produce an average.

For instance, on Twitter, Matthew Grant, reader in modern British history at the University of Essex, rightly pointed out that there are 19 universities where there are seven or fewer female professors, and they are not always small institutions: Coventry University, London Metropolitan University and Staffordshire University are among them.

The figures also reveal that there is just one institution – the University of Worcester – that has enough female professors to produce an average salary (£65,678) but fewer than eight male professors. Perhaps this on its own illustrates that UK higher education still has a long way to go on pay equality for women.

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Reader's comments (1)

Yes all the cash seems to have gone into buildings and more and more pay for senior managers. Meanwhile academic pay is cut and cut to see how much the senior management can get away with.