The salaries league table begins

September 11, 1998

It is only a matter of time before pay is ranked by subject, says Andrew Oswald

Professors of computing, economics or chemistry may soon earn much more than professors of music, art or languages in British universities.

This prediction - that a league table of salaries linked to the subjects academics teach will emerge - is not far-flung speculation. It is based on what is happening in the United States, the market that Britain, now that it has decided to charge students for their tuition, is following. As the table above illustrates, there is a huge discrepancy between professorial pay levels. While an American professor of computing earns $81,000 each year, a professor of music makes just $56,000. Salaries of science academics far outstrip those of humanities professors.

In the US, the main English-speaking country where the private sector plays an important role, wage levels in private and public universities are not controlled by central government. A private university, like a business, can do largely what it wishes. Demand and supply pressures then have to fight it out.

In British universities, outside income is now a primary goal; research assessment seems here to stay; teaching is ever more closely scrutinised; stress levels exceed those in most of the commercial organisations I know. To try to work out what the future holds, an economist is likely to wonder how the market will adjust to these new features of university life. We know that in economics, for instance, the supply of new British people into PhD programmes has been slowing. The flow this year was close to zero. Data from other fields paint a similar picture.

By gazing westwards we can learn that British universities are probably going to have to get used to university staff in the best-paying subjects earning 40 or 50 per cent more than in the lowest-paying. Another phenomenon of US academic salaries may be worth noting - that senior staff earn about 40 or 50 per cent more than assistant professors. In Britain, professors currently can earn three times what junior lecturers receive.

There seems a good chance that the table gives the shape of Britain in the next century. Many will look at its numbers and say they are unfair. Perhaps it is morally unjustifiable that a talented PhD university chemist can earn much more than a talented PhD university scholar of German. Fairness, however, appears to be out in Britain.

What this table cannot tell us is how high the average level of pay will have to be to keep people in university life. How much will we have to pay young computer scientists and economists to stop the brain drain to the City? One might believe that, to get people to do the job, market forces will have to make some sectors of our profession rather well-paid.

Andrew Oswald is professor of economics at the University of Warwick * Do you think professors should be paid by subject? Email us on soapbox@THES.co.uk

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