Are we over-paid?

One of the questions to have been raised in recent public debate about the Irish higher education system has been whether Irish academics are paid too generously. It is pointed out occasionally that academic pay in Ireland is on average much higher than that elsewhere. Broadly speaking, pay in Irish universities (for those in full-time permanent jobs) is in a range from €42,000 for a junior lecturer at the start of their career to a maximum of perhaps €145,000 for a full professor. In the United Kingdom the range is from about €37,000 to a maximum of €82,000 (though in fact some professors are able to negotiate rather higher pay), in the United States €58,000 to €98,000, and Germany €25,000 to €35,000.

There is no doubt that this looks generous, though one might add that many of the students taught by these lecturers and professors will not take long, after graduation, to earn even more in other professions, with lower qualifications. However, it is a question that we must be willing to address, and we must be able to demonstrate that the pay scales provide good value. Of course, this country has the ambition to be a knowledge economy, and it could be argued that universities need to provide attractive employment for those with the greatest talents and the best qualifications.

To date we have not been good at marshalling the points and providing persuasive arguments. So what should we be saying? Or are we really all just over-paid? And I am not even mentioning the pay of presidents…

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12 Comments on “Are we over-paid?”

  1. Donal_C Says:

    My answer is that many faculty members, but not all, are overpaid. This applies more generally across the public sector in Ireland where pay levels seem especially high.
    An important distinction between Irish (and, more generally, European) universities and those in the USA is the variance of pay scales across disciplines. For example, US schools pay management professors considerably more than sociology professors. A new assistant professor of management in a reasonable US university is likely to earn much more than 58,000 euros. In contrast, DCU and most European universities offer the same salaries across departments. There’s also relatively low variance across pay scales within a given country – another distinction from the US.
    This flexibility to award different salaries across disciplines is not without its problems. However, it allows universities to attract talent (especially in departments where PhDs are in short supply) and helps to clear the market somewhat in those subjects where there is a surplus of PhD graduates (though getting a faculty position in an arts subject is not easy anywhere). Schools outside of the US are increasingly moving towards this position, albeit informally by awarding special top-up allowances to faculty in selected areas.
    Of course, the pressure to gain tenure in the US may be considerable. I don’t know the Irish system well enough, but I imagine that most new hires who work reasonably well benefit from degree of job security. In the US, this is not the case.
    To go back to the original question, I’m not necessarily arguing that a faculty member is worth what he or she could earn by employing his or her skills on the market. Rather, within an overly standardized system some are over-rewarded and others are under-rewarded.

  2. otto Says:

    “in the United States €58,000 to €98,000, and Germany €25,000 to €35,000.”

    These numbers are inaccurately low in the case of the US and I’m pretty sure that German professors are paid multiples of €35,000 too.

    The main fact in relation to English-speaking academia in Europe is that UK academics are very poorly paid, which is why many of the best ones head off for the US when they can, and why many others pretend to do their academic jobs while looking for non-academia-enhancing outside earnings. A bad choice for the UK but there are benefits for us. The main point to remember for Ireland’s situation is that hiring researchers, unlike hiring Gardai, means operating in an international market, and if Ireland lowers its salaries those with options will leave and new people with PhDs from top institutions won’t come in the first place. Bluntly put, Ireland needs to be a place where people with US PhDs can consider coming to work if it wants to be a focus for research excellence.

    • I confess I had always thought that German professors must earn quite a lot, but in fact they don’t. Admittedly my figure was a bit over-simplified, because it varies from state to state, and because some can negotiate (relatively minor) top-ups. But genuinely, German professors even at the maximum don’t earn more than about €60,000, whereas the average lies in the range that I gave. You can check it out at

      The big difference between Ireland on the one hand, and the UK and the US on the other, is that with us rates are fixed and are equal for all. In the US and the UK individuals can negotiate, or can be offered, significantly higher salaries at the discretion of the universities if the institutions really want them and if the job has to be made attractive to them. At the height of the boom this put us at a great disadvantage in Ireland.

      • otto Says:

        If you want to say that German professors are paid €60-75,000, I might just believe that. It’s quite different from €35,000.

        I think I would prioritise the most important differences between UK, US and Ireland differently than you do. US and Ireland both offer competitive starting salaries which can attract people around the world, though of course what anyone gets depends on how many offers they have etc. (One point in relation to this is that there’s no salary related excuse for DCU or others in Dublin in particular not getting applicants from the world’s very best PhD programmes). The UK does not compete here, which is why noone with a US PhD will look at the UK job market save in extremis or for family reasons.

        Then at the top end of professors etc, the Irish outcome is pretty good in terms of incentives to perform and perhaps to get people to move within Europe, but does not allow the sort of mega-package (with big house thrown in, job for spouse etc) that top US researchers will try to leverage with a few offers in hand when they’re about 8-10 years in. Perhaps that’s the sort of person you were looking for in the boom? The British system does have that flexibility in theory, but its flexibility from such a low salary base that British universities aren’t really competitive for such ‘top hires’ despite this flexibility.

        I should add one more thing, which is that in the US, UK and I think Germany there are such outstanding universities in terms of research ambition and environment that people sometimes take a salary penalty just to be there, of which some of the very poorly paid teaching positions at Oxbridge are only the extreme examples. Irish universities can’t really play that card, alas.

  3. PRL Says:

    You can find out top salaries at the University of California at this site:

    – plenty of elite professors making $300K plus.

  4. Vincent Says:

    Aaaaaaaaagh, fishes, barrel and a sixteen inch naval gun. MUST NOT COMMENT.

  5. Joseph Says:

    Part of the draw for my coming to be an academic in Ireland was the pay. A bigger draw was the research funding available per capita academic researcher.

    That being said, finding out that pay did not vary across disciplines, that pay was non-negotiable, and that even a well-paid lecturer could not afford a decent place to live in Dublin made the argument for “highly-paid” fallacious and “fairly-paid” a laughingstock.

    Ireland’s academic pay scale system, regardless of value, is as idiotic as the CAO system—it was designed in the idea of “fairness” for politically correct reasons and puts Ireland at a significant disadvantage.

  6. Joseph Says:

    At least in Computing, Germany always has been, and still is, quite strong, or at least has very strong individual researchers. In particular, I work with and very much respect researchers at Munich, Koblenz, and Karlsruhle, were I was just yesterday. I cannot comment on the general state of the “German research university” though.

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