This is another post inspired by one of those impossible Twitter discussions.
I suppose the first thing to note is that asking what the average academic is paid is actually a very difficult question bordering on the meaningless. Even if you look at permanent staff only, you cannot compute any kind of meaningful average unless you have a detailed breakdown of how many people there are at each grade and at what point on the pay scale they are sitting. To make things even more confusing, it depends on when they signed their contract of employment. At the moment there are 5 pay scales in the universities (I’d have 2-3 scales at most and maybe I’ll expand on that idea at a later date) and let’s just look at the pre-Haddington Road figures:
Lecturer (below bar) 41.5 – 51.7K
Lecturer 50.2 – 81.4 K
Senior Lecturer 71.9 – 94K
Associate Professor 83.0 – 110K
Professor 114 – 146K
Bearing in mind that the average industrial wage is about 35K (although that term is somewhat meaningless given the disparity in earnings across the sectors: in the ICT sector the average salary in 2013 was around 52K), it is clear that many academics are ‘well’ paid with pensions to match. But are they paid too much? I suppose that depends on their grade and how hard they work. Obviously you’d want to be able to demonstrate that you work very hard – and effectively – to justify a professorial salary of 146K a year or even 94K a year at SL level.
But let’s take the Lecturer scale – the so-called career grade – where there are lots of good people who for various reasons, often to do with resource limitations, have not been promoted and are unlikely to ever be. (Incidentally, surveys suggest that Lecturers do more teaching than any other grade.) When they reach the top of the scale (in their mid-thirties at least), are they overpaid? To put Lecturer pay in context, it is worth noting that in 2013 the average salary of a chartered accountant was 87K. In my own discipline (chemical engineering) salaries for those with 3-5 years’ experience were in the range 50-60K, at which point anyone aiming for an academic career would be just completing their PhD and still quite some years away from a permanent academic job, insofar as these exist anymore.
Looking at things from an international perspective, does a lecturer at the midpoint of the Lecturer scale deserve to be paid 1.9 times the average industrial wage or about 1.3 times the average wage in the ICT sector? In Germany (where gross salaries are significantly lower than in Ireland), I reckon, based on some very unscientific research last night, that the average academic salary there (based on the ‘W2’ grade) is about 1.4 times the average industrial wage there. However, academic pay is supplemented by family allowances and performance-related bonuses so it’s hard to pin down an exact figure. And, rightly or wrongly, you tend to think of the average industrial worker in Germany as being particularly highly skilled – otherwise what’s the point in the renowned German apprenticeship system? Incidentally I don’t know how German pensions compare with our own but the pension issue is wider public service issue anyway.
One interesting aspect of the German system is that the basic salary of a ‘Professor’ (W3) is about 1.3 times that of a ‘Lecturer’ (W2). In Ireland a full professor earns roughly 1.9 times that of someone at lecturer scale, based on the midpoint of each scale. I suspect there is a lesson in there somewhere.
The one thing we need to remember in all of this is that the teaching aspect of the academic job is an important one for society and if, for example, we were to slash academic salaries and/or pensions, we would further weaken the attractiveness of academic careers. Already there is a strong sense that the academic career is far less attractive than it used to be. In some engineering and IT disciplines, for example, the earning potential of young graduates makes the academic career particularly unattractive. It’s not quite a case of paying peanuts and getting monkeys but if we are to take seriously the idea that education is crucial to the country’s future, we have to pay the educators well – relative to other professions in Ireland, not Germany. Otherwise academia becomes a place of last resort and nobody wants that.
One of the key points to be made about this whole ‘debate’ is that much of the comment in the media about the public-private divide is voiced by those who are self-employed and being self-employed is no doubt a very stressful way to work. Many, if not most, high profile journalists and media commentators are self-employed and they have a particular and understandable perspective on all of this. But there are many employed in large companies in the private sector, whether they be in ICT, agrifood, pharma or financial sectors who may not have ‘jobs for life’ or state-supported pensions but who are rewarded very, very handsomely indeed through not only their basic salary but through many other mechanisms including bonuses, share options and various benefits in kind. In many areas of the private sector there is huge scope for the well-qualified and talented to earn salaries that are multiples of what can ever be earned by equally but differently-talented academics. That essential difference has to be part of the public versus private debate.
I suspect though that there will always be the perception that public servants generally are overpaid and not just because of the pension issue. Many will continue to view a public sector job as being cushy, pressure-free and operating in an accountability-free zone. (Pay rates in Quangoland don’t help the cause.)
The best response from academics, especially those in STEM disciplines where the academic job becomes very multi-faceted indeed, is to be more vocal about what we do and to make the academic job, in its totality, far better understood. I mean, the fact that we still get asked about our ‘summers off’ says something about how badly we have communicated what it is that we do.