Superstar professors’ post-REF earnings surge revealed

Well-paid professors who led their departments to success in the 2014 research excellence framework won higher salaries and will be even more valued in 2021, say researchers

October 9, 2018
Paparazzi taking photos of stars on red carpet
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Roll out the red carpet: many universities invested heavily to secure leading scholars, often on high salaries, to boost their research excellence framework performance

“Superstar professors” recruited for the UK’s last research excellence framework are likely to have received substantial pay rises if they improved their department’s performance, a study suggests.

With some £1.6 billion of annual research funding linked to the sector-wide audit of research quality conducted in 2014, many universities invested heavily to secure leading scholars, often on high salaries, to burnish their research record in key areas and to secure more income.

An analysis by economists at the University of Nottingham has now found that those new recruits – as well as other top-paid staff – are likely to have enjoyed a further significant dividend if they helped to propel their department up the REF league tables.

By assessing the salaries of some 16,300 UK professors over a three-year period, starting in 2013-14, researchers found that pay of the best-remunerated professors rose much faster if their department registered an improvement in its average research quality, as measured by grade point average (GPA).

However, departments that increased their income without boosting their GPA scores did not raise salaries for top-paid professors at a higher rate, according to the paper, presented at a conference organised by the journal Economic Policy in Vienna.

That meant that if a department managed to climb from a mid-table GPA ranking to a top-10 position, the wage bill for its top-quartile professors would rise 50 per cent faster (at about 6 per cent above inflation over the three years) than at a similar department that achieved the same funding at a lower GPA.

The study was not able to see if other non-professorial staff also received a similar rise in salary after a successful REF, although it did find that lower-paid professors did not get a pay bump in the same way as higher-paid ones.

“University departments that were lucky in the REF were not only able to hire more professors, but were able to pay their professors more, especially at the top,” Gianni De Fraja, who co-authored the report with Giovanni Facchini and John Gathergood, told Times Higher Education.

The report’s finding that GPA rather than overall income led to higher professorial salaries suggested that departments were able to use their prestige as a “bargaining chip” to gain more resources after the REF, and that they distributed the bounty in the form of higher pay and internal promotions, said Professor De Fraja, professor of economics at Nottingham.

“The REF money is given to the university, not individual departments, so we suspect those who did well on GPA had more bargaining power than those who just did well on income,” he added.

Commenting on the likely role of “superstar professors” in the 2021 REF, Professor De Fraja predicted that they would be “even more important than before” in the wake of reforms that mean some staff can submit just one output published between 2014 and 2020.

“If a superstar professor can contribute as many as five people, they will be considered as very important to departments,” Professor De Fraja said.

jack.grove@timeshighereducation.com

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