Dangers ahead as high-fliers soar above pack

February 5, 1999

The number of people in universities whose salaries are over Pounds 50,000 a year is rising - and these figures take no account of outside earnings. Compared with business, academic pay is modest but, even so, the scale is stretching out. Vice-chancellors, registrars, clinical academics and some professors are pulling away from average lecturers, let alone the growing army of part-time and contract staff.

This gap developed slowly. Vice-chancellors' pay took an upward turn when government insisted salaries be published and new universities were seen to be outpacing old. The professorial average was abandoned over a decade ago but few institutions were rich enough to indulge high-fliers. Their reluctance was supported by Oxford and Cambridge's egalitarianism.

Now solidarity is crumbling. Research success brings rewards that make top academics a bargain at any price. London, led by the Business School, set the pace. Now the Oxford Business School (THES, January 15) is breaking ranks and Cambridge's top brass said this week (page 1) that they will have to pay more to stay competitive. And this week differentiation became official policy with the announcement of public-sector pay awards with built-in incentives for high-achievers.

Higher education's leaders hope to persuade the government to fund a catch-up settlement for all. The last time this happened was in 1987 and the price was high. In return for 24 per cent over three years, the vice-chancellors signed a concordat with the government that marked the beginning of interference over quality arrangements, staff appraisal and training and performance-related pay.

This time universities have less to sell. The controls are in place. Public policy requires an appearance of restraint. A strong case commanding public support will therefore be needed if there is to be enough money to raise pay all round. Otherwise mainstream higher education will find itself imprisoned in a cash-limited envelope with three choices:

* To hold down pay for the new and young to reward high-fliers

* To take the egalitarian approach and lose the best to the private sector

* To rely on soft money to top up core salaries - a risky policy.

The chairman of the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals has seen the danger that the additional money needed to secure high-fliers will have to come from increases already agreed for research (page 15). This fear may be heightened by the Office of Science and Technology-led transparency review. The review is more than an exercise in openness. It is also, the OST says, to ensure that centres of excellence are identified and maintained and that funding by research and funding councils is "sufficiently selective". This is apparently the Treasury's price for success in the next spending review.

Nobody thinks that too little selectivity in research funding is now the problem. A small group of universities already dominates public research spending and takes most of the funding from charities and firms as well. The result is that public funding per student for research-intensive universities is about double that for universities with little research.

Much the greater danger is that a government rightly committed to inclusiveness and greater career orientation in higher education will find itself, thanks to the OST's energy and the Treasury's enthusiasm for efficiency, reinforcing the status of highly academic institutions, differentially rewarding those who spend little time teaching undergraduates and making it harder for those running practically oriented and innovative institutions to provide students with good study conditions.

If the Department for Education and Employment wishes to remain the responsible ministry for universities, it will need to ensure the Treasury and the OST do not inadvertently take them in directions in which they did not intend to go. It should pitch in itself on their behalf to get more cash.

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