You're paid too little - even your employers agree

May 10, 2002

All academics have taken a decision that there is more to life than money. But this week's comprehensive survey from the Universities and Colleges Employers Association suggests that their goodwill has become a positive disadvantage for the sector. In its report, Ucea agrees with most of what the academic staff unions have been saying for years. Low pay is making it hard to recruit staff, especially in highly paid subjects such as finance, where the private sector snatches good people away. Part of the picture is the changing nature of university employment. Although academics still have more control and flexibility in their working lives than most professionals, it has been eroded in recent years, enhancing the charms of the private sector and of public service. And short-term contracts give staff a frequent reminder to think about the attractions of a career change.

But Ucea's findings leave no doubt that low pay is the prime cause of universities' inability to recruit the right people. Instead, places are being left unfilled or people are being hired who would have been weak candidates a few years ago.

In normal times, the publication of this report would be a substantial own goal. However, it has appeared not in the context of an annual pay claim, but with both eyes on the Comprehensive Spending Review due from the Treasury in early summer. The positive mention of higher education in chancellor Gordon Brown's budget has raised expectations of more money for pay. At the same time, the Bett report provides solid evidence that academics need to be paid more, a conclusion that Ucea's research underlines in detail. The paper is a sign that its masters, Universities UK and the Standing Conference of Principals, are improving their lobbying skills and becoming more serious politically.

The problem is how to show politicians that academic pay is an investment, providing the magic ingredient known to the Treasury as "something for something". The Bett report pointed to the need for more money for equal pay, not a Treasury priority. This, surely, is the politics of the Ucea report. It is meant to prove that better pay will mean better academics, a better student experience and more scope for expansion, something the chancellor does want to see.

But the academic community's inability to get the government to fund the improved research in British universities casts an ominous shadow over the CSR. The government likes higher education, but is not keen to pay for its pleasure. While more money may be on the way, it will almost certainly not fill the gap between today's low-pay shambles and the well-paid academic workforce the country needs.

Instead, the CSR is likely to leave higher education wanting more. Some cash may arrive with the government's long-term review of higher education later this year. But it is likely that neither the CSR nor the review will meet demands for decisively more money, preferably enough to make a real difference instead of the student fee system introduced after the Dearing report.

This will mean more pressure for the government to let universities charge unlimited top-up fees. It may also strengthen the resolve of the most research-intensive and student-attractive universities to cut loose from the state system.

These schemes have a superficial attraction, but all run counter to the government's objectives of wider participation in higher education and a more skilled workforce. They make sense only if a significant pool of scholarship cash is available for students from less prosperous backgrounds. Despite the changes Joan Cole describes (Letters), it will take years for charitable giving to build up substantial scholarship money in UK universities, especially at the access-intensive institutions where graduates tend to be the least well-paid.

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