German professors slipped from “the top of the income pyramid” over the course of the 20th century and experienced “a sharp decline” in their salaries relative to other high earners.
That was the argument set out by Alexander Sohn, a PhD student at Bielefeld University, in a paper titled “No longer top of the class: professorial salaries in twentieth-century Germany” delivered to the Economic History Society’s annual conference at the University of Warwick.
The bulk of the data was taken from 15 university archives covering the period from 1908 to 1965.
At the start of the period, explained Mr Sohn, “the average salary of a professor was normally found in the top 1 per cent of incomes”, with one particular example “well into the top 0.5 per cent of the income distribution”.
From 1926 to 1928, there was a notable increase in salary and status, with “all subject-mean salaries…now well within the top 1 per cent of the income distribution” and those at the top earning 14 times the average income.
Yet this did not last. By 1963-65, after the Depression, Nazi era and post-war austerity, Mr Sohn cited evidence that “average professorial salaries had now surely fallen out of the top 1 per cent”.
Although legal restrictions made it harder to obtain detailed personal information after that, a comparison with 2000 made it clear that things had got worse.
At the start of the new millennium, claimed Mr Sohn, the average income of a professor was still “in the top 5 per cent of the income distribution but far off the top 1 per cent, let alone the top 0.5 per cent”.
He does not believe that there is a single explanation for this striking trend, but Mr Sohn stressed that larger and more powerful universities had increasingly become “a universe of their own”, with access to “a growing supply of academics who could be recruited at an ever falling relative salary”.