Academic pay – is it all just too much? Or too little?

My column in today’s Irish Times covers the topic of academic pay, prompted in part by the recent report of the Comptroller and Auditor General on resource management by the universities. You can find my article here. I am posting the link as some readers of this blog have expressed an interest in commenting on the piece.

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20 Comments on “Academic pay – is it all just too much? Or too little?”

  1. Cormac Says:

    Great post Ferdinand. The main point, the determination of academics’ salaries by the public srvice scale is unknown to many.
    Re qualifications, in science it’s more like 4 yr undergraduate, 2 yr Master’s, 4 yr PhD – I wonder how this timespan compares with comparable pay grade in the civil service..

  2. Ernie Ball Says:

    A few comments:

    1) Comparing like with like: If you are simply comparing Irish and UK or German salaries and not taking into account purchasing power parities, you’re simply not comparing like with like. For one thing, the comparison will shift, sometimes wildly, when the exchange rates shift without anyone’s pay having changed. If you compare Irish and US salaries now (with the euro at $1.30 or so), Irish salaries look OK. If you were making the comparison soon after the launch of the euro, when it was worth about $0.80, Irish salaries wouldn’t look so great. Purchasing power parities take account of this as well as the cost of living. There is no such thing as “highly paid” or “low paid” unless and until one specifies the cost of living. I was recruited to UCD from abroad. The number itself meant nothing to me absent information about the cost of living. My salary now sounds impressive to US colleagues. But the fact is, I could have a similar standard of living in most places in the US on roughly half my salary (and I could afford to buy a home, which I still can’t do here).

    Any discussion about whether or not academics are paid too much or too little that doesn’t take these things into account will be misleading at best.

    2) Who is overpaid?: The main issue raised by the C&AG’s report, on my reading of it, is not the pay of academics. It is the pay of management. The vast majority of the money paid out in off-the-scales payments and allowances in my university was paid to those in management positions. Because of the 1950s-style (if it’s not Louis XIV-style) hierarchical bureaucratic organization of UCD, I must include as “management” all those Heads of School, Directors of institutes, et alia. who have been chosen by the Sun King and his “management team.”

    This crucial distinction–between university management and those they hope to “manage”–has been entirely lost in this debate, yet the report couldn’t be clearer. It is management that has squandered resources and paid itself handsomely for doing so. At roughly the same time that the Registrar and the Bursar of UCD were paying themselves €21,300 and €47,100 respectively over the sanctioned rates for their positions we received the following in a memo from the Registrar and Bursar:

    Hospitality costs should be reduced and should not at any time be excessive or extravagant. The provision of tea, coffee, biscuits etc. should be discouraged and reduced. Any unnecessary costs incurred in the provision of water dispensers should be reviewed and discontinued where possible.

    Do you think the annual budget for tea and biscuits for this university amounted to anything like what the Registrar and Bursar overpaid themselves per annum?

    The guilty parties run this university as though it were a corporation. But when caught, then all staff are “collegially” lumped back together as if the problem were university-wide. It’s not. Your article, along with this sort of coverage contributes to just this sort of conflation.

    Speaking of this conflation, Section 4.7 of the C&AG’s report has this reported justification from President Hugh Brady to justify the off-the-scales salaries of UCD management:

    The President noted that universities including UCD compete for a highly mobile international talent pool and are recognised as key drivers of economic development. He stated that Ireland would not be able to compete successfully for jobs if its universities were not competitive with international universities.

    This is laughable on its face. Yes, universities do have to compete for a highly mobile international talent pool of academics. Do they have to compete for a highly mobile international talent pool of managers? Surely not. How else to explain that virtually nobody in UCD management has been recruited internationally and virtually nobody has left UCD management for greener pastures. In fact, far from having been recruited from abroad or even from some other university in Ireland, almost everyone in UCD management has been recruited from Belfield itself.

    And before you scold me: yes, I know that UCD is not all universities. It is, however, the worst offender according to the C&AG’s report.

    • Jilly Says:

      Just one point Ernie: heads of school/departments in UCD as in all other universities are academics. They are members of staff in their respective schools/departments, who serve as head of school/department for a fixed period of time (usually 3 years) and then go back to their regular academic roles, as a colleague takes over the task of running the school. This is in fact a very traditional model of university governance, and hasn’t changed in UCD.

      For the period of time they take on the Head of School/Department role, they are sacrificing almost all of their research career and much of their personal life, as it is a horribly demanding task. With or without allowances (which have now been cancelled for all academics performing these tasks) it is one of the most obvious examples of collegiality in universities. It is however getting harder and harder to persuade people to do it: the cancelling of allowances isn’t helping.

      • Ernie Ball Says:

        It is traditional to have Heads of School who are remunerated for taking on the job. What is not traditional is to have all Heads of School essentially appointed from the top. Oh, sure, there is in some Schools a pretence of collegial “bottom-up” governance but all Heads of School have to be approved by the College Principal, and all the latter are basically handpicked by Senior Management.

        So, yes, in a normally-functioning university these would be examples of collegiality and it would be a shame that the justifiable allowances for Heads of School got lumped in with the scandalous allowances of Senior Management. In UCD, however, Heads of School are mostly examples of Yes Men (and Yes Women), chosen for their known agreement with management aims. The fact that they will not now be paid for the service combined with the requirement for toadying means that the positions will soon become difficult to fill. There are only so many people who agree with management aims, one of which is, of course, the destruction of the collegial basis of university life in order to replace it with a “human resources” business model.

        • kevin denny Says:

          I think thats a rather jaundiced view of UCD or at least it conflicts with what I have observed. I can think of quite a few Heads of School who are not Yes-people and I know of one case where the person appointed was in very direct opposition to the wishes of the Principal.
          The Heads I know are decent, capable people who do not “toady”, they get on with the job.
          The abolition of allowances for Heads of School is a bad idea. The best thing that can be done as compensation is the offer of a year’s sabbatical after the event- I know this is being used in some schools.

  3. […] Anyway, Ferdinand’s piece is typical of virtually everything that makes its way into the press about such matters these days, in that it contains misleading statistics that, whether by design or not, outrage the general public and it conflates two different classes of people working in universities: management and academics.  Here’s a cross post of what I posted in response to him on his blog: […]

  4. Ernie Ball Says:

    Hey, I’ve made that response the first post on my new blog:

    Ernie Ball’s Blog.

    We’ll see how long I last!

  5. Some time ago I was active on another blog to the effect that the Unions were wrong to defend all public service pay because this meant defending the rich. Sure enough when media had a go at the Unions, they dragged out examples of ludicrous pay and extras, while the fact of low public service pay was seldom mentioned. Something similar is happening now in relation to the portrayal of university pay. As Ferdinand points out, academic pay starting at 35k for a Ph.D. is modest and I have found that academics work hard for long hours and are extraordinarily committed to their discipline and their students. The controversy is not primarily about academic pay.

    Ferdinand writes, “Yes, we know there have been these allowances and bonuses, but overall only a very small number have received them, and they have stopped.” This echoes a classic argument against curbing excessive pay: that there are few rich people and relatively little will be saved by reducing their income. Yes, it’s true but rank inequality and excess is corrosive. There is also in the sentence a hint of “we are where we are” and this is not good enough here or anywhere else. Who was responsible for these payments? Is anything being done to recover the money?

    International pay comparisons and points about recruitment are all too familiar; they have appeared elsewhere. While universities cannot be walled off from business practices, more is expected of them and they certainly cannot adopt questionable business practices. Universities are pillars of our society. Their pay policy could reflect values; they might decide that the highest paid member of staff should not exceed ‘n’ times the lowest paid, where the value of ‘n’ will be decided after public debate.

    Moreover, I posted the following under “Just Deserts” on this blog on Sept. 19th and there’s not much point in changing it for use on this thread.

    “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.”

  6. Jilly Says:

    Ernie again, I’m afraid: I don’t know precisely how many Heads of School UCD has, but it’s a big place, so quite a few. I rather doubt that you know them all, let alone well enough to know how they approach their roles in detail, or their views on college management or indeed philosophies of education and research.

    And yet you feel quite free to announce that they are all ‘yes men’. It’s nonsense, and undermines what might otherwise have been a worthwhile argument about university management structures.

    • ernieball2 Says:

      Jaundiced, moi?

      I didn’t say that they are all Yes Men. I said that they are “mostly examples of Yes Men.” There are always exceptions but the claim is hardly nonsense: one would have to be blind to the tentacular nature of the current regime and its extreme anti-collegiality to believe that it is allowing Head of School positions to be filled with very many who aren’t of the “play-along-to-get-along” sort. There is no evidence that that is how they operate and there is quite substantial evidence to the contrary.

      Let’s go up the ladder: do you think it’s fair to say the College Principals are Yes Men and Women? How about the Vice Presidents? And what about the Governing Authority? Or am I being naive?

      • Ernie, I won’t say if you are being naive, but you are being ‘Ernie Ball 2’. So are you a cloned version, or a new improved model? Are there further models in production? 🙂

      • Jilly Says:

        I still suspect that you’re basing a wide generalisation about a significant number of people on your experience of a very limited number of them. Large organisations tend to contain wide varieties of individuals at all ranks, from the poisonous to the saintly, with everything in between. The idea that UCD (not my own university, I should stress) is run by some kind of panoptical regime is frankly ridiculous.

        • Ernie Ball Says:

          If it sounds “frankly ridiculous” to you, it can only be because it is “not [your] own university”. I can assure you that it doesn’t matter what kind of wide variety of individuals a university contains if the structures are such that only certain kinds of individuals rise within them. This is the case at UCD.

  7. soothingwhisper Says:

    this seems like a solid load of anthropological nonsense. just kidding, these issues are crucial to the global academic world. I just graduated from cornell economics, got to know profs from german and belgium, and felt overall that they were under compensated. just based on their lives, their levels of stress, and their strong efforts in the classroom. at large university has so much capital – make your teachers happy, seriously.

    i may be able to offer some helpful thoughts, take a look at

  8. Jilly Says:

    OK Ernie, I’ll try one more time. I have several close personal friends who have agreed to take on Head of Dept/School roles in UCD based solely on the traditional formula that it was their turn, every other senior person in the dept had done it more recently, etc etc. These are in all cases very ‘traditional’ academics with no connection to the current management of the university. They have without exception loathed the job, but have accepted it and soldiered on because someone has to do it. Given that in both cases I’m thinking of, they were the only ‘willing’ candidates put forward by their department/school, the university management simply had to accept their appointments, with no questions asked. I think it is highly offensive to label such people as ‘yes men’. Especially when we all know that many departments have senior staff who are too selfish to agree to take on such tasks, but then (in some cases) get to posture that this selfishness is some kind of ideological stand. They are the ones who deserve the criticism for their opportunism, not those who are prepared to give up 3 years of research and personal life to the demands of 80+hrs a week of admin.

    • Ernie Ball Says:

      So, let me see if I have it right: I’m accused (with no evidence presented) of generalizing based on limited experience yet you base your claims on “several” (or is it two?) people you happen to know?

      In any case, what you write here contains a tacit admission that I’m not wrong about UCD, since you make it clear that the only reason university management had to accept these non-Yes Men is that there were no other options. That implies that the norm is for Yes Men to be appointed to the positions, which was, after all, precisely my point.

  9. frank emerson Says:

    Does anybody know if the HEA will recoup these overpayments.

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