Are academics paid too much?

As the pay of BBC on-air talent is revealed, one academic comes clean about his salary

July 21, 2017
Source: iStock

The BBC salaries report has prompted me to do something that I've had in mind for quite some time.

So here it is: my salary is £48,327.

I am 42, and have had a full-time academic job since 2008, when I was 32. Before that, I took a long time to do a master’s and a PhD, and taught as an hourly paid lecturer in six different subject areas for eight years. When things were tough, I did some supply teaching, which is why I admire teachers so much and feel so guilty about my behaviour in school. Well, some of it anyway. I also had a £6,000 annual scholarship to do my PhD.

If you think 32 is late, the generations of academics behind me have it far worse. Being on a selection panel for an entry-level lecturing job was shaming: every single applicant had achieved more in terms of research, while doing huge amounts of teaching, while never having had a full-time job, a permanent job, or even a full-year job.

Salaries are not as transparent as they look either. Some academics negotiate, while others aren’t aware that it’s possible, and there are ethnic and gendered aspects to this. I was once sitting next to a colleague who was offered a proper contract after working with us for years. To his enormous credit, the associate dean on the end of the phone talked her into accepting a higher salary than was technically on offer.

I was also lucky. I’d taught for years in so many areas before the possibility of a part-time job came up that I quaveringly asked whether my length of service might justify making me a senior lecturer, and the panel agreed. I doubt that this would ever happen now.

How do I feel about my salary? I feel rich. The average UK salary last year was £27,600. I live in a very poor area, so the gap is far wider. I have benefited from being middle class, white and male: lacking any one of these characteristics would result in a sharp drop: lacking all three dramatically reduces earning potential.

I do have other feelings about my salary, and they’re mostly comparative. I work in a sector where managements work very hard to make sure that academic salaries fall behind while their own converge with industry. That annoys me.

I feel that the long years of earning little or nothing and having no job security simply to acquire the qualifications and experience needed should be reflected in academic salaries.

I’m also aware that this is my peak salary: the elevator stopped long ago, and insecurity is once more afoot.

I work hard to remind myself that my salary is way in excess of my neighbours and what most of my students will get, and that I don’t even have a family to support. I mitigate the guilt by happily paying every tax that I can, and by making sure that those earning less than me never buy the coffees: that’s how it was when I had no money, and I’m just passing it on.

I also feel that I work hard for my salary. I have contracted hours, and they’re officially exceeded by a significant amount every year, and unofficially exceeded by even more. Then there’s the emotional labour involved in this kind of work: we don’t just teach and write, we provide intellectual, cultural and emotional support to students and colleagues in ways that can’t be quantified. The strong bonds between us means that there’s a culture of overwork that is never acknowledged.

It’s true, however, that within a neoliberalised social system, being a lecturer in English literature and a researcher in Welsh literature is a luxury good. It shouldn’t be, but it is.

So there we are. That’s what I earn. I’m lucky to work in a sector with a national pay bargaining unit, and resigned to the ever-widening gap between my colleagues and our overseers.

I’m conscious of the class, racial and gender bonus included in my salary. I don’t aspire to riches, simply to security. I spend my money on books and train travel, and lust over extremely expensive bikes that I’ll never be able to afford. I’d happily pay more tax and see a more level salary landscape, but I also think that there are a lot of people taking home a lot more tax for doing less useful work.

This is an edited version of a blog that first appeared on the personal website of the Plashing Vole, a senior lecturer at a English university who blogs anonymously about university life.

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Reader's comments (8)

"I also feel that I work hard for my salary. I have contracted hours, and they’re officially exceeded by a significant amount every year, and unofficially exceeded by even more" I never like this as a defence of salary - I earn a bit more than you and don't do a lick outside of 9am-5pm and refuse to do so and always have, I refuse to feel guilty for not working for free.
I mitigate the guilt by happily paying every tax that I can, and by making sure that those earning less than me never buy the coffees What a weird little blog. Most of us academics are on top of our game in terms of research, teaching and administration. The salaries we get are justifiable and, if anything, do not reflect what other professionals are making for comparable work.
Yes, this is a peculiar article. Personally, I do not feel at all embarrassed that my own hard work and talent have got me a decent academic job. The salaries are not high for the effort expended in the contemporary university environment. I am certainly well behind the majority of my contemporaries from the past in terms of basic living standards. I have little time for such angst and my efforts are targeted at giving my own family as good a life as possible from my earnings.
Nice article and nice take on this topic. I like the fact that here in the UK there doesn't appear to be huge salary imbalances amongst and between subjects. So a lecturer in English lit is on the same scale as a lecturer in law or physics. Quite different of course from the students that we are training.
Sadly, after about 8 years at University, my income is just over £70 a week and it's been a number of years since I got my PhD...
I left academia one year out of PhD. The postdoc I really wanted would mean I'd have to tolerate the same income I had when I worked as a research assistant aged 21 living in Wales but moving to Canada. Vancouver is like London for living cost/quality of life, but for some reason they pay their academics the same in CAD as the UK does in GBP for an intern. So I decided to try my hand at what I had been missing out on. Join a startup and go full industry. Within two years of being in a job directly related to the sorts of work I would have done in academia, my income was comparable to the author's but at age 32! Academics who think they are paid well or even too much have a laughable lack of grasp on reality. Academics from STEM fields at all points in their career are paid about 50% of what they could get doing a piss poor job in industry. They are usually not working on something completely unique given a job outside of the academy either.
The idea that academics are paid too much is ridiculous. I work at a Russell Group university and work on average 65-70 hours per week, which means I earn less than £10 an hour. My job is stressful - many students, who are becoming increasingly demanding, 5 courses to run and my research team of 6 to manage. This is not even mentioning the admin burden. I can barely afford to live in the city I live in (one of the most expensive in the world). My husband and I have postponed having children due to living costs and work stress. I would definitely change to industry if such an opportunity arose.
It depends a lot on who you consider an "Academic". In UK anyone who does not have a permanent contract with a department (a.k.a "Research Staff") are not considered academics. Becoming a lecturer is considered as the first step in your career. The earlier you are able to achieve this the farther you are going to go. Sadly for research staff from international background or under privileged backgrounds this is almost never possible. The "academics" earn >60k within 5 years of their career and will mostly earn around 100k by 10-15 years. But "research staff" will most likely make around 60k after the same 10-15 years. For example, A rich kid from UK can finish his bachelors, masters and PhD in one go without thinking about earning money. This leads to a bunch of 24-25 year old PhD's who are keen on churning out some papers in couple of years you are looking at a few 26-27 year lecturers. The key here is that these people get 6-8 years of uninterrupted time to pursue their passions without any external pressures. When they apply for lectureship positions they appear as focussed, high achieving, good looking, well spoken, well dressed, "fit for the department" academics with track record of coherent research. Compare this to an international student or student from a poor background. The first group has money pressure in terms of non subsidised, private loans and the second group has the urgency to make money or responsibilities to care for or support other people. When both these groups finish their PG by 21/22 they are under huge pressure to work and earn. PhD is a huge decision at this point which will involve accommodating less than passionate subjects or line of research just to get a good position which is either near home or sponsors the visa or pays a decent stipend etc. Often they also take up some research/ teaching jobs just to supplement income rather than following a coherent research plan or interests. When these guys finish PhDs in their late 20's, they tend work for couple of more years in academia progressing others' research in the hope that they will gather a big enough portfolio of research to be able to justify one of these lectureships. But there is not going to be end of next generation rich kids competing for these positions and get them. Meanwhile, the privileged kids from the same cohort who are already in permanent positions will be applying for better and bigger funding calls, churning out PhD students and racking up KPI's targeting promotions, while getting others to do their research, write their papers and book chapters. Effectively these class of "academics" never work on anything real after their PhD. All the later work are done by others and these get to put their name just because they got the money to pay for it. These people's career take off at the same age when the careers of the rest stagnate. They get promoted every 2-3 years in these academic departments with ballooning budgets fuelled by armies of international students until they reach to the point of "Professor of **insert some bullshit buzzword**". It is an unfair game and the only fair chance people have is to collectively say no to working on bullshit research projects sold by young inexperienced "academics" to funding agencies posing as future leaders of academic excellence etc. etc. As long as they get a stream of diligent, bright people to work for them, write papers for them in exchange of some quick money, this whole game will keep continuing. One good thing that has happened recently is that companies like deepmind, facebook, etc. have started hiring researchers. If brexit stops the flow smart bright students/researchers from abroad in the next couple of years and locals start saying no to these 1-2 year contract research jobs to work at these companies, then there will be a string of unsuccessful, useless, "just sounds good on paper" projects. This is going to make the research councils reconsider the usual decision of putting their money on people who has actually never worked on anything beyond their PhDs and make them look for actual talent who will do the job. But thats the optimist in me, the pragmatist in me says shit will never change.

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