Just deserts?

It has been one of those times when universities have been in the news, and you wish they hadn’t been. The Comptroller and Auditor General has issued  a report on universities, widely covered in the media, including articles in the Irish Times and the Irish Independent in which he has described bonus payments and other benefits awarded by some universities to staff outside of the authorised scales. Thankfully DCU got no mention, as indeed we were always very careful in my time to stay within the rules. But some others were heavily criticised.

I won’t defend any particular practices or payments here (and for the avoidance of doubt, I am no longer receiving a president’s salary), but I will say that the current rules don’t make sense. They prohibit payments outside of public service salary scales. This makes it very difficult to recruit competitively and to reward performance, but ironically they have this effect in particular when it comes to ‘ordinary’ staff, whether academic or support staff. They can be more easily circumvented when it comes to very senior staff.

It is my view that universities need to be given the right to determine salary scales independently of state regulation, but subject to proper mechanisms for doing so. There should be appropriate remuneration committees with independent members that undertake this task – doing so will make universities more competitive, but will also ensure integrity in the process. Right now we appear to have the worst of all worlds.

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4 Comments on “Just deserts?”

  1. Vincent Says:

    Much of the problem is that such payments are considered as pensionable later on.
    So in this I believe that the Exchequer has both the current and the future in mind when making this type of decisions on pay control.
    But it might be in the interest of the University Union to decouple themselves from those in the Civil Service. For at some point the Gov’-this one or the next- will go after them, the CS, baldheaded.

  2. Al Says:

    I dont agree Ferdinand.

    When those wages arent paid by the public purse, then they get the freedom.
    Until then….

  3. kevin denny Says:

    Not giving universities considerable freedom in determining remuneration is crazy because the market for academics is an international one. Moreover its heterogenous one. By that I mean there may be a “going rate” for bus drivers or bank clerks but for say philosophers or economists or computer scientists there isn’t. Some of them are worth a lot of money (meaning it will cost you a lot to recruit & retain them) while others are not.
    The C&AG seemed to note some very odd practices indeed but he also, I understand from the newspapers, commented on the practise of universities hiring people above the minimum. Yes indeed they do.
    In UCD’s case, when lecturers are hired the point on the scale they are offered depends on the number of years since they completed their first degree (or at least this was the practise, it may have changed). This make no sense at all. So the university does negotiate: they would be stupid not to. In my case, I negotiated a higher point on the scale than the initial offer: otherwise I wouldn’t have accepted.
    There is a potential for abuse and the taxpayer does need to be protected. Large salaries for some senior appointments are usually justified by appealing to the need to be internationally competitive: but in practise many of those appointed are not on the basis of international competitions and are often from within the institutions. The public are entitled to be concerned. External oversight, as you suggested, would be an excellent idea.

  4. Oh, Come on! There is a problem with preposterous pay and it’s hardly surprising that it is present in the universities.

    Attempts to justify in market terms are no longer credible. We’ve had years now of listening to managers in banking and their apologists telling us how the market dictates salaries and bonus payments. (Let’s leave aside their evident lack of ability.) Shane Ross tells us that in researching his book, he came across not one single instance of a senior person in Irish banking being headhunted. There is no market in any meaningful sense of the word. Ludicrous salaries are a ready-up: insiders paying each other with someone else’s money.

    The practice of senior staff exploiting their employers via excessive salaries, bonus payments, allowances, travel and expenses originates in private companies and in latter years has infected the public service. We are talking about a tiny number of people but these payments demoralise the majority, stifling effort, enterprise and innovation.

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