Time to rethink rewards offered by charmless sector

February 25, 2000

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Tel 020 7782 3000 Email editor@thes.co.uk Website www.thesis.co.uk Waiting until damage is obvious means that it is much more expensive to fix. University managers and unions have long warned about the consequences of holding down academic pay. They have pointed to the demographic cliff over which the 1960s generation would tumble at the end of the century. They have warned that students ending undergraduate degrees with heavy debts would not want to go on to ill-supported graduate study.

Such warnings were ignored. There were apparently large numbers of researchers on short contracts eager to take any permanent job going. Academic life offered security in an age of corporate downsizing. The life was agreeable. So where was the problem?

Now the rot is far advanced. Not only is the pay bad, academic life has lost much of its charm (Soapbox, page 16). Students are too numerous to know personally, forms too numerous to fill conscientiously. The older generation is retiring (pages 6-7) and there are leaks below the waterline. Younger academics, particularly numerate so-called rocket scientists, can get high salaries and astronomical bonuses in the financial services sector. United States universities are back in the market with their cheque books. Bright graduates prefer the lure of the .coms and jobs with starting salaries above the pay of their lecturers to years of penury doing a PhD.

Modest above-inflation pay increases over the years and decent support for postgraduate study might have prevented today's malaise. As it is, there is now an ingrained feeling that clever people are being unfairly exploited. Even large rises would not change the mood quickly. Nor are large across-the-board rises likely. The Bett committee did not make the case for them. Ministers are unconvinced that they have to find the money. Recruitment and retention problems are seen as confined to a few in-demand subjects and a small group of highly sought-after academics.

Thus is the government tacitly encouraging a lengthening of the scale of rewards in once egalitarian universities. Ways are being found to pay high-fliers extra. Professors are off-scale anyway. Others are promoted up the scales in bigger jumps. Distinguished researchers, who adorn a university's books for research assessment, get substantial time off for private work. The number of academics earning more than Pounds 50,000 a year went up 15 per cent last year (THES, 28 Jan). But it is still not enough to keep British universities competitive internationally.

Against this background, people in universities, and not just in institutions with high research profiles, are beginning to think the unthinkable; that they might be better off controlling their own fees; providing students with a high-quality education and dumping on government the political hot potato of providing the scholarships and bursaries that would be essential to ensure access for all regardless of means.

Last time the fees issue was raised, the Conservative government stalled revolt by setting up the Dearing committee to report after the general election. University vice-chancellors, staff and students, with a shared dislike for charging, acquiesced. A strong bargaining position was lost and, under the terms of the 1998 act, the price of defiance is now prohibitive.

Now the debate is sharpened by disappointment that new Labour has not proved the friend it was hoped it would be, and by growing dislike of burdensome regulation. Education secretary David Blunkett has called for rigorous debate. In Scotland, the Cubie committee has provided an admirable example of how this can be conducted. This time vice-chancellors, and those who represent staff who have been ripped off for too long, should keep their nerve, keep the possibility of going it alone on the agenda and force a genuine reappraisal of higher education's situation.

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