A report on recruitment says the UK fares well in the global pay league, which makes it attractive to foreign academics, but job satisfaction in universities is low. Paul Hill surveys the figures
UK academics are better off in real terms than their counterparts in Australia, New Zealand, Sweden and Japan, according to research.
A government-commissioned report concludes that working in a UK university is likely to be a tempting financial prospect for academics in some Commonwealth and European countries because of the relative purchasing power of academics in Britain.
The study, carried out by the National Institute of Economic and Social Research (NIESR), found that British academic pay in real terms is on a par with that in France, Denmark and Canada, once cost-of-living differences are taken into account.
But the report also sounds a note of caution about overseas academics - who already represent 40 per cent of new recruits to UK universities. It says: "While lower-paying countries may prove a fruitful source of recruits, foreign recruitment should be viewed with caution.
"Recruits from other European Union countries, Australia, New Zealand and the US were identified as more likely to expect to leave UK academia, and so reliance on foreign recruitment may lead to future retention problems."
The study says that starting salaries for US and UK academics are comparable but, once established in the profession, academics in the US can expect to earn far more.
The US has a "premier league of academic high-flyers", the report says, within which even academics in the median earnings range - across all age groups - are paid 75 per cent more a year than their UK counterparts.
Andy Pike, of lecturers' union Natfhe, said: "This study has used a different methodology for looking at the issue of international comparisons than studies in the past. I'm not sure that a lot of people in the sector will agree with the approach. All past studies put UK academics down the international earnings league table."
Nevertheless, the report - Recruitment and Retention of Academic Staff in Higher Education by Hilary Metcalf, Heather Rolfe, Philip Stevens and Martin Weale - concludes that UK academics lag behind other professionals in terms of pay.
"Compared with other highly qualified employees in the UK, academic starting salaries are low," the report says.
"Academics continue to earn less than comparable employees until they are in their mid-fifties, at which stage academic salaries are slightly higher than those of comparable employees. However, the gain at this age is much smaller than the earlier loss."
Jonathan Whitehead, of the Association of University Teachers, said: "If you look at the pay comparisons domestically, our members' pay has continued to slide compared with other professions. The report rightly picks this up as a problem and as something that should concern the Government.
"There needs to be concerted strategy to deal with this - to make an academic career more attractive to new recruits in this country. It is not just about pay, though, it's about lack of job security and career prospects."
The NIESR study included a survey of 2,805 academics in ten universities and 1,330 postgraduate research students. It found that high pay was not an important consideration in career choice - although the relatively low salary deters a "substantial minority".
Only 9 per cent of research students surveyed said that earning a high salary was "extremely important", while 37 per cent rated "freedom to use your own initiative" most highly. Thirty-four per cent said that a "good working environment" was extremely important.
The report recommends "raising awareness" among research students of real-terms pay and pension benefits to improve the supply of recruits to academe. But it also concludes that golden handshakes, performance-related pay and market supplements "excite strong feelings" among academics and are regarded as unfair.
The authors warned that such pay enhancements may be "counterproductive" and that the perceived unfairness might reduce staff retention. The study also found that "academics are less satisfied than other employees".
The report says: "(Academics) score lower on all of the main aspects of job satisfaction - the work itself, promotion, pay, hours, job security, relationships with supervisors, relationships with colleagues and physical work conditions - except for the opportunity to use their own initiative."
But the "increasingly managerialist" approach to higher education - including the research assessment exercise and teaching quality assessment - "tend to reduce autonomy, while financial constraints affect physical work conditions and the ability to participate in the wider academic community". This "exacerbates" recruitment and retention problems.
Low risk of retirement crisis
There is no "demographic time bomb" in higher education, according to the study. Having weighed up staff data from 2001-02, the NIESR researchers conclude that there is "no budge in staff approaching retirement" and that the "age profile of academics is similar to that of the workforce as a whole".
The mean ages of male and female academics are 43 and 40 respectively. The study found that 54 per cent of staff at old universities are aged under 40, compared with 32 per cent at new institutions.
Nevertheless, the report also warns of significant variations in the age profile of university departments, "with the proportion of staff set to retire in the next five years (ranging) from under 10 per cent to over 25 per cent". The overall conclusion echoes that of a Higher Education Funding Council for England study undertaken in 2002.
Both studies also agree that the exceptions to the general picture are mathematics, physics and engineering, where an increase in recruitment rates is required to maintain current numbers.
But the NIESR report says that while 5 per cent of institutions experienced difficulties in filling job vacancies in 1998, 20 per cent reported problems in 2001.
The problems were most acute in disciplines that compete with the private sector for recruits, such as law, information technology and engineering.
Staff in English or classics departments feel the strongest vocational pull to an academic career, the study concludes.
The survey found that 81 per cent of academics in English and classics had "very much wanted an academic career" before achieving their goal, compared with 68 per cent in maths, 59 per cent in medicine and dentistry, 44 per cent in engineering and just 36 per cent in art and design.
Some 10 per cent of academics in education departments said they were "not thinking about careers" when they took their first academic post.
Academics teaching in old universities "were likely to have very much wanted an academic career or to continue with research". Staff in new institutions "had wanted to teach or had been lured in through a particularly attractive job".
The NIESR report concludes that "women were less likely to have very much wanted an academic career" than men.
But it also found that research students thought hard about job security before pursuing an academic career. More than half those surveyed said it was "very important" to have a permanent post within two years of getting their degree.
The NIESR team concludes that, in terms of recruitment and retention, fixed-term contracts for researchers may be "short-sighted" and called for "the insecurity facing researchers... to be reduced".