Fat cat factor fuels unrest in the ranks

November 8, 1996

Today the results of ballots on industrial action by campus unions will be known. Given the mood in higher education, agreement to action must be likely.

Staff and students are profoundly disenchanted. Year after year the squeeze has continued. Students have seen their debts mounting as a deliberate result of Government policy to reduce the proportion of support provided by grants. Academics have seen their pay rates barely rising in line with inflation and this year it looks as if they will dip back to 1981's level in real terms. The employers' offer at 1.5 per cent is below any expected level of inflation and real wages across the economy are up 3.5 per cent this year. Other comparable groups have not been similarly pegged back.

Staff anger is fuelled by their being badly paid and the feeling that they are falling behind. But it is made worse by a developing fat cat phenomenon. Not, to be sure, very fat compared to other areas of public life but fattish and secretive with it, which always makes for suspicion. The range of rewards in academic life, once remarkably narrow, is widening as it is throughout the economy. This is not happening by a formal lengthening of the scales, but outside the formal structure. Universities, unable to afford to raise the pay of all their staff, have been able to pay more for a few people who can bring in large extra revenue. At the same time they have saved money by passing an increasing amount of work to casual or part-time staff who are not on the regular pay scales.

At the bottom, there are increasing numbers of part-time and short-contract staff who are low paid and have little security. More than a fifth of academics earn less than the national average (just over Pounds 17,000) and less than the typical lecturer (Pounds 16,600). And in the middle, most full-time staff are bunched at the top of their pay scales. One and a half per cent does not make for happiness, and winning promotion is a cut-throat business.

Meanwhile at the top there are a few academic high-fliers who can command their own price. Since the professorial average (a limit set on the average any university could pay its professoriat as a whole) was dropped in 1989, professors' pay has been a matter of negotiation. Such negotiation has sometimes been robust as universities competed to attract high-fliers who might boost their research rating and thus both their government research funding and their ability to attract research contracts.

The frenetic transfer market up to the end of last year fattened a fair few cats. Our survey of high fliers' pay in February showed that even by the summer of 1995 there were 180 people in academic life paid over Pounds 100,000 - 45 of them heads of institutions, many but not all of the rest clinical academics.

Nor are salary levels the only factor in opening up the spread of academic reward. It is common for academics to undertake consultancy. Many institutions allow a day a week for such outside activities without reducing pay. Others may connive at more than this for those who bring contracts or improved research ratings to the university. Top professors in the right subjects may double their salaries quite easily from outside earnings.

How such time is used varies. It is noticeable that academics (particularly those in popular areas of science) are beginning to write up their work in a form which helps sell their books to the general public thereby earning better royalties than could be expected from the traditional academic monograph.

There has been a gradually increasing number of academics on the boards of companies or working part time for commercial knowledge traders like London Economics, founded by John Kay, now director designate of Oxford's controversial management school (No vote, page 52). Then there are the non-pay factors used to attract high-fliers - houses, research assistants, technicians, equipment, even (see Antithesis) help with the kennel fees.

It is galling enough to find your pay standing still when your workload is increasing: it is worse when contemporaries are by-passing the pay scales, escaping teaching to concentrate on research or swanning about on industrial expenses.

It is hard to see how these developments can be reversed. Without substantial extra money there is little prospect of raising pay substantially across the board. Such extra money does not seem to be on the horizon. More likely is that academics, who are, after all, well qualified, clever people, will increasingly regard their academic jobs as part-time and start raising their earnings to a decent level through freelance work. This is a pattern all too familiar, for example in Germany. It has done the quality and reputation of German universities no good.

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