Professorial pay rises: is the REF factor at play?

REF factor may explain growing salary differential shown by Hesa data. Jack Grove reports

March 28, 2013

Professorial salaries are rising more than twice as fast as pay for other academic grades, raising fears about the inflationary impact of next year’s research excellence framework.

With just seven months to go until the cut-off point for inclusion of staff in the REF, figures released by the Higher Education Statistics Agency suggest that professorial staff are gaining higher wage rises than rank-and-file academics squeezed by low national pay offers.

The average salary for full-time professors rose by 0.55 per cent to £76,214 in 2011-12 - almost three times the 0.2 per cent average pay increase handed to all other academic staff, whose average salaries rose by just £88 to £43,130, the Hesa figures show.

The number of professors at UK universities rose to 18,465 in 2011-12. Excluding the 584 scholars at the University of Oxford reclassified as professors that year, this equals an extra 416 academics at that grade. Meanwhile, the overall number of all other academic staff declined slightly.

Average pay for professors at several universities rose sharply, with many post-1992 institutions offering far higher average salaries than in previous years (see data below).

Needs of few outweighing the many

The financial data, published in this week’s Times Higher Education, provide evidence that universities are paying higher salaries to attract or retain senior staff who can boost departmental REF scores, which will be used to distribute hundreds of millions of pounds in research cash.

But there is concern that the focus on senior staff, whose wages are not subject to the national pay spine, is coming at the expense of lower-paid academics who have faced four successive years of below-inflation rises.

“Against a backdrop of suppressing national spine payments for the many, some are doing very well in comparison,” notes a submission to university employers by higher education unions ahead of next month’s national pay negotiations.

The news comes as THE publishes its annual survey of vice-chancellors’ pay, which shows that the average remuneration awarded to university leaders, including pensions and benefits, rose to £247,428 in 2011-12.

A “lack of transparency in how such off scale appointments and reward decisions are made” should also be addressed, the union submission notes, adding that Hesa data indicate that about 2,500 higher education staff were earning more than £100,000 a year in 2011-12.

Roger Brown, professor of higher education policy at Liverpool Hope University, said that pay increases were likely to have been influenced by the REF, although he added that the rises were modest compared with previous years.

“It is yet another example of the influence brought about by research selectivity,” he said. “Universities are wanting to do well in the REF and are looking around to hire more professors on higher salaries, but what are [they] getting in return?

“Research shows most universities don’t get back the money they invest…[the REF] is an exercise in prestige and rankings, rather than gaining money for research.”

David Palfreyman, director of the Oxford Centre for Higher Education Policy Studies, added that the focus on attracting top research stars offered little benefit for students as it merely “reinforced the subsidy process from teaching to research”.

“What does the fleeced undergraduate actually get?” he said. “They pay £9,000, of which £1,000 is a tax to cover widening participation activity and then a good chunk funds research, glitzy new buildings and administrative bloat.

“Can any [university] seriously demonstrate extra spend on teaching for undergraduates?”

The differential explained why higher education could be delivered by for- profit operators charging £5,000 a year for vocational subjects, “even with a profit margin and a giant marketing budget”, he added.

However, Mahesan Niranjan, professor of electronics and computer science at the University of Southampton and an expert on the REF, said that last year’s salary differential should not automatically be attributed to the exercise.

“REF or no REF, one group (professors) have the opportunity to seek pay advances against their performance evaluated in annual appraisals, while the other group (non-professors) don’t,” he observed.

Top 10 average rises in professorial pay, 2010-11 to 2011-12 (%)

Edge Hill University - 11.89
De Montfort University - 10.51
Robert Gordon University - 7.31
Bucks New University - 6.58
Courtauld Institute of Art - 6.58
London South Bank University - 5.40
University of Hertfordshire - 5.38
Coventry University - 5.09
Bath Spa University - 4.97
University of Lincoln - 4.96

Note: Institutions with seven or fewer professors are not included
Source: Hesa

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