Leader: Poor pay must not be the price of dedication

September 21, 2001

Academic life will always be a magnet for bright people who want to do satisfying work. And by entering the profession, every academic has taken the decision that maximising his or her income is not their most important aim in life. But this approach, while acceptable as a personal decision by an individual, is a challenge for institutions and their managers that they have failed to address.

The fact that some talented and dedicated people will work on insecure contracts for low pay does not make this a viable personnel policy. As Bob Bennett says, a study of the arts and humanities shows that the home students who ought to turn into academics have all but dried up in areas from languages to law.

These findings reinforce others from science and technology, where charities have been able to shame the research councils into paying research students better and into improving conditions of employment. For the arts, things look less favourable because there are few big funders. But this should be a spur to university managers, no strangers themselves to well-paid secure jobs, to think creatively. There are massive industries - publishing, advertising, public service - for which these subjects provide intellectual and educational underpinning.

As our Trends in Higher Education pages show, the era is past when anyone was surprised at UK universities being caught by legislation designed to root out poor employers. Instead, a European directive on fixed-term employment should help those affected by short-term contracts. It would be wrong for this form of employment to be stamped out. It is often appropriate, especially for researchers near the start of their careers. But when applied to people who are nearer to their pensions than their PhDs, it is less acceptable. Few industries have guaranteed cash-flow for years to come. But most do not pass the uncertainty on to junior colleagues. Instead, they regard it as the kind of problem managers are paid to cope with. Nor, it appears this week, are university managers any better at coping with part-time staff, whom they fail to involve in the life of departments or to train and resource properly. Universities invented portfolio careers. They risk losing or discouraging part-timers, and facing a welter of discrimination claims, unless they become better at managing them.

But even the most cunning managers cannot cope on their own with the other factor that is reducing the attractions of academic life - money. The pay is terrible, as the Bett report has shown, and is even more daunting for people with debts built up during undergraduate and graduate study.

It is now apparent that the Treasury is not going to solve the problem without a significant quid pro quo from the sector. It wants "something for something", even though academics have already provided the something by coping with massive expansion with insufficient resources.

The next something the government will demand is performance-related pay. The challenge is to ensure that it is introduced in a way that is consistent with academic values, which means rewarding groups or departments, not individuals. It will have to be managed to reward non-academic staff and will have to relate directly to the achievement of an institution's financial and scholarly goals.

But to look on the bright side, PRP might work against the current hypocrisy about academic pay. Professors and other senior staff already negotiate their pay directly with vice-chancellors. The results often have more to do with their fund-raising ability than their academic stature. As a result, scientists and engineers are paid systematically more than arts types. With an accountable PRP system accompanied by new money, the cash might be spread more widely and fairly.

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