Secrets in the salary packet

June 12, 1998

Why can't Britainbe a bit more likethe United States and come clean about everybody's wage rises and merit money, asks Keith Soothill

I DID not get a salary rise this year. It did not really surprise me as I have not received a rise for the past few years. On the other hand, last year I was told by letter that "had the university's financial situation been less critical, you would certainly have received an increase this year as a mark of the value which is placed on your work''. So, as the financial crisis has partially lifted, this year I was more optimistic than I now care to admit.

Nonetheless, what I got in 1998 was not a letter notifying me of a merited increase in my pay, but a bland round-robin which was neither helpful nor encouraging. It seemed that my performance over the past year had been evaluated in such a way that I had now gone down in the pecking order of "value which is placed on your work". No longer was I close to a salary rise. This was strange for I reckoned I had made an even greater contribution in various ways than in previous years.

With curiosity aroused, I could not regard this as the end of the matter. I wondered who indeed had received the accolade of a pay increase. I soon found out that this information is withheld. The remuneration committee at Lancaster University provides neither reasons for rejecting pay rises nor the names of successful applicants.

I can cope quite well on my present salary, but that is not the point. Why must everything to do with pay and promotion be so secret? My query about who was successful in this year's salary stakes seems so minimal compared with procedures in many United States universities, which are required to publish the actual salaries of faculty members, not just who received a rise in the current year.

I arranged to see the vice-chancellor. He supported the remuneration committee's view that pay rises should not be disclosed. He said that the Scottish culture from whence he comes also does not encourage divulging salaries. Of course, I can see that publicising the financial details of staff's salary rises may cause local difficulty, but, in my view, that potential trouble is justified, for current procedure is unsatisfactory.

The vice-chancellor explained how carefully procedures for deciding who will and will not get a pay rise are undertaken. I am confident that there is nothing corrupt in the system but would want to point out that bias may be quite unconscious - as women have learned to their cost over the years. Secrecy means that there is no independent monitoring of the system.

The vice-chancellor did say that the vast majority of pay awards were to correct past anomalies. He also acknowledged that very highly paid professors who did not deliver in terms of the quality of their teaching and research could always be a potential problem. Nonetheless, he was reluctant to accept the suggestion that publishing salaries could have the effect of publicly shaming these lazy professors - shaming is popular in criminal justice circles to challenge unacceptable behaviour.

Of course, our system is not really secret. Heads of department know the salaries of their members and because departmental headships change every few years current and out-of-date knowledge intermingle tantalisingly. New heads of department may be shocked that some of their colleagues get much more than they do. Certainly some have learned that the one sure way of getting a rise is to declare that they have been head-hunted elsewhere.

So where am I now? I am waiting for a response to my request that I be told the names of staff who have been awarded a professorial salary increase in the years 1996, 1997 and 1998. I requested this on two grounds. First, I need to have successful role models so that I can recognise and begin to understand whose work is being valued to the extent of a salary increase. Since there is no individual feedback on staff's work, this seems the only way that I can begin to modify my own work appropriately. Second, I cannot see any reason why these awards should be a secret; if there is a reason, I should be glad to know it.

I think our vice-chancellor would reconsider if a majority of Lancaster professors wanted a change in the system. I am reluctant to start campaigning until I know what others think. Am I right in identifying the danger of secrecy?

Keith Soothill is professor of social research, department of applied social science, Lancaster University.

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