Leader: A trend in the right direction

UK academic pay has risen significantly. But the disparities between disciplines and genders need to be addressed

March 13, 2008

It may be crass to trumpet the recent boost in academic incomes when memories of the most bruising dispute to hit higher education for a generation are still fresh in people's minds, students are saddled with rising debt and support staff at some universities struggle on wages that would shame a sweatshop. But the fact is that most full-time, permanent academics are no longer badly paid.

UK academics command higher salaries than colleagues in the rest of the Commonwealth and those in the US, where the average full-time faculty member earned $73,207 (£36,320) in 2007. Admittedly, simple currency conversions cannot show how many hamburgers a professor can get to the pound and it's a fair bet that a square metre of a condo in Melbourne or Chicago will cost less than one in Bath or York. Nevertheless, British academic salaries are on an upward trajectory. Professors out-earn MPs, pilots and solicitors; lecturers eclipse schoolteachers, quantity surveyors and journalists. And this is before the effects of the national framework agreement and the latest pay rises have fully worked their way through the system.

The reasons for the increase are obvious, even if their relative influence is debatable. Academics can thank for their good fortune, in portions that will depend on one's point of view, a combination of union determination, management sagacity, government largesse, student fees and market conditions.

But not everyone has benefited equally. One of the starkest differences is the gap in salaries between institutions. To an extent this may be a function of geography: one would not expect to be paid the same in Lampeter as in London. Historically, too, there may be ways in which staff bunched at certain points on the pay spine will shape salary profiles. But by far the largest factor determining university pay is institutional mission. Bluntly put, the bigger the research or business cojones, the fatter the pay packets. As universities sharpen their distinct identities, they may be able to tailor careers and enhance salaries that meet a particular need. Institutions at the forefront of scientific, medical or financial advances will, however, always have an in-built advantage in the pay stakes.

The disparities between institutions are less insidious than those within them. Universities should be alive to the growing gulf between faculty salaries, between linguists and medics or historians and economists. It may be inevitable but it is no less corrosive for that. How can universities hope to promote institutional loyalty successfully when the sociology professor earns half that of his equal in the business school, and when the salaries of both would barely pay for the visiting professor flown in for a few hours a year to contribute a bit of stardust? There are fewer excuses for income inequality between the sexes. Our oldest and one of our newest universities - Oxford and Bucks New - pay female professors slightly more on average than their male equivalents. Whatever the consequences of career breaks and the glass ceiling, two institutions from opposite ends of the educational spectrum appear to have found a partial answer to gender pay inequality. Others should follow suit.

Observations that people are well paid tend to be followed by calls that they shouldn't expect any more. It would be regrettable if the recent improvement in pay was seen as a means of redressing past grievances rather than an acknowledgement of the status academics should expect in what we are continually reminded is a knowledge economy. A country with aspirations to the technological and intellectual high life cannot base its hopes on impecunious academics. This upswing in salaries needs to be the start of a long-term trend, not a short-term fix.

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