I demand ... less cash, no honour

Historian spurned salary and told Cambridge to hire two young academics instead, writes John Gill

November 20, 2008

Academics may typically be motivated more by love of learning than money, but few are known to have negotiated their salary downwards.

However, the actions of an eminent historian prove that such selflessness - intended to stop cash-strapped universities from spending funds they can ill afford - does exist.

Quentin Skinner stepped down as Regius professor of modern history at the University of Cambridge this year at the age of 67.

According to one of his peers, who asked not to be named, Alison Richard, vice-chancellor of Cambridge, offered to keep Professor Skinner on at the history faculty's expense. But Professor Skinner said that, although he would have liked to stay after almost half a century at the university, he was "too expensive" and the faculty would be better served by employing two younger members of staff at the same cost.

The source added: "Great heavens, they said, you can't mean it - but he did."

When Queen Mary, University of London, then offered him the post of Barber Beaumont professor of the humanities, Professor Skinner proceeded to "beat them down" to a lower salary; he said he only wanted to top up his pension.

In a third act of altruism, he returned his lecturing fee to the University of Bristol's Institute for Research in the Humanities and Arts when he discovered it represented a large chunk of its annual grant. "Horrified by this, he returned the cheque for use as a postgraduate bursary," his admiring colleague said.

The modest demands of Professor Skinner, who is visiting scholar at the Centre for European Studies at Harvard University, came to light as the University and College Employers Association (Ucea) published figures to illustrate how high earnings in the sector now are.

According to the Annual Survey of Hours and Earnings, which is based on figures gathered in April, academics' pay is significantly higher than that of other professionals even before recent pay rises are taken into account. Academics earned an average of £43,360 last year, compared with £35,779 for secondary school teachers and £40,117 for all professionals. According to Ucea, these figures do not take into account a 3 per cent from May and a further 5 per cent from October.

"As a result of the 2006-09 pay agreement, higher education staff have enjoyed some of the best pay increases across the public services and the private sector - in excess of 30 per cent since 2001," Ucea said.

If the data are to be believed, Professor Skinner's moderation will have been particularly welcome to financially straitened universities.

And his restraint is not restricted to remuneration.

In 1997, when he was appointed Regius professor of history by the Queen, he reportedly turned down the knighthood that is typically conferred upon the holder of the post.

His colleague said: "He told them: 'I can't do that, I'm a republican.' And when his then vice-chancellor asked him to reconsider for the sake of the university, he said: 'No, no, my friends wouldn't speak to me!'"

john.gill@tsleducation.com.

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