Overpaid academics?

Over the past week or so the Irish newspapers have given over a fair amount of space to the issue of academic salaries in Ireland. The gist of the commentary has been that Irish academics are seriously over-paid, and that professors in particular are far too generously treated. Last week the Irish Times produced a list of the 100 best paid employees in Irish education, and  this was followed yesterday by an article written by Brian Mooney in which he suggested nobody in education (and, following a line that has been taken by Fintan O’Toole in the same paper, in the public service overall) should be paid more than €100,000.

It should probably be said that in Ireland all university professors (and a significant proportion of associate professors) earn over €100,000, so we are not necessarily talking about a small minority at the top. Also, because there will presumably still need to be a differential between grades, any reduction of professorial salaries to below €100,000 will produce a knock-on effect that will reduce all salaries across the sector, at least to some extent. A substantial proportion of those affected will then, in all likelihood, have problems with mortgages or similar payments, as they will have taken on debt based on their assumptions of income.

Irish professors, like other public sector employees, have had their pay cut already over the past two years. It is true that they enjoy salaries that are above the international norm. But in order to qualify for these salaries they have to win qualifications and demonstrate achievement that, in most other professions, would get them higher salaries still.

It may well be that, as a nation, we need to re-think the levels of pay that we can afford, but it is not reasonable to single out academics in this way, and to do it in such an off-hand manner.

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24 Comments on “Overpaid academics?”

  1. Vincent Says:

    This gets on my nerves. Why the heck are they not looking at the Doctors pay, and then making comparisons internationally. Those numbers are really off the charts. And it’s about time that someone told the medics if they can get the Mayo Clinic or John’s Hopkins off they go.

  2. Jo McCafferty Says:

    Interesting! While there are probably a few well-to-overpaid academics shuffling their way around unviersities, most, in my opinion are not sticking to a normal 35-40 hour week and therefore balking at a high salary without looking at what a particular academic actually does in terms of workload/research/student support/and bringing funds into the university seems a bit off.

  3. otto Says:

    I think this post leaves out the international competitiveness element which is vital to academia but not so important in many other parts of the Irish public service.

    We need academic salaries which are high enough that we can hire at the entry level from the global market, meaning in particular that our most research-orientated departments can hire PhD students coming out of US universities. That means being able to make a counteroffer that can interest someone whose alternatives at US research universities would include a starting salary of e.g. $60,000/ year (would be higher in some sciences or e.g. economics, maybe lower in languages). Already we would find it hard to match this salary, certainly net of the large deductions/taxes in Ireland compared to net in the US, and it is vital that these starting salaries are high enough that we can stay in the game here. (BTW, there is certainly no excuse for paying these sort of starting salaries to Irish graduated PhDs who don’t have e.g. a counteroffer at this level).

    We also need salaries that are high enough at the top end that we can hire top achievers away from universities in other countries to come to Ireland – the sort of package that will lure someone away from a place they are already happy and successful. The current ‘high’ professors salaries are – at least in my understanding – in fact not high enough to be able to hire professors away from leading British and US research universities. Again, salaries need to be higher here than at present, unpopular though it is to say so, but again, these high salaries should not be available to just any successful academic in an Irish university if they are not competitive at this level.

    • Al Says:

      I dont buy this line of argument.
      If I was one of these high flyers I would be getting out of dodge as the funding for me to do my job outside of my salary will be non existant.
      5 years of inertia is significant in an academic career.

    • copernicus Says:

      The point I would like to make is that not all professors who get the high UK salaries in Tier 2/3 universities are of International calibre. Good calibre professors do not demand huge paypacket, but would like to go universities which are really at the top , even if it means cut in the paypacket. Indeed, Professor “Venky” Ramakrishnan, an Indian who is American citizen, and who was awarded jointly the 2008 Nobel Prize in Chemistry (ribozome structure), came to the famous molecular lab of Cambridge university from the U of Utah, dropping 40-50% of his salary as he knew that his further work at the molecular lab of Cambridge university would be good for his career. He was soon elected Fellow of Royal Society of London, he published papers in th prestigious journal “Nature”, and this was followed by his Nobel Prize. He confessed then that he did not even have a secretary.

      Two other examples, are Professors Andre Geim and Konstantin Novoselov, who were awaded 2009 Nobel Prize in Physics ( graphene- a type of carbon),came to Manchester U a few years ago, as it provided them the best environment to do their research. They were not paid large salaries.

      • copernicus Says:

        Further to the above. How does one determines if a professor is of the highest international calibre. If one uses the metrics of impact and citations, Professor “Venky” Ramakrishnan would have been at U of Utah, was not,and this explains why the top univerities like Harvard did not offer him a position. He was relatively not the top person in that area then as these metrics were flawed, and the credit of appointing him, a relatively junior professor to the position at the molecular lab of Cambridge university, a position occupied by such luminaries as Sanger(a double Nobel Prize winner), goes to the talent spotters at Cambridge U. I hear similar story of talent spotters from Manchester U when they offered full professorship to a young Konstantin Novoselov, when his dissertation adviser Professor Geim moved there.

        • copernicus Says:

          Sorry many typos as usual!

        • copernicus Says:

          Just the last bit here. Dundee U life sciences has 4 of the best life scientists, all of them Fellows of Royal Society in London and Professor Grahame Hardie, whose research on cellulra signalling paved the way for understanding Type-2 diabetes and the creation of innovative drugs (Metformin for example, a main drug for type-2 diabetes), and as a potential Nobel Prize researcher would not move to say Harvard, I guess, with which he collaborates extensively.

        • otto Says:

          Of course salaries are not everything for academic staff, but short version is that academics who have choices often go to the place where the salaries are higher, and certainly not too much lower. There are exceptions, where people will not move for family reasons, or where the research environment is of outstanding excellence (such as Oxbridge, and even Yale etc academics could often earn more by e.g. moving to Texas) but we would be fooling ourselves if we think e.g. Dublin offers an Oxbridge-type academic environment to compensate for lower pay. In short, we don’t have any ‘universities which really are the top’ in Ireland, and so we can’t afford to underpay the way Oxbridge does. If we stop being able to offer entry-level academics salaries which can just about compete with US research university salaries, we will cut ourselves off from students from the research institutions which constitute the main engine of ideas in many areas of the arts and sciences.

  4. copernicus Says:

    The GPs pay have reached an obnoxious level in England, when 3 years ago the then Health Secretary believed British Medical Association, the closed shop doctors’ union,in their promises about services ( they are never known to keep any promises, a self-serving bunch) they promised and the GPs salaries hiked up by 100%. They are the best paid general practitioners in the world, do work just 4 days a week, do not have out-of-hour responsibilities, have no competition, no pressure to update their skills as all of them never had any more training since they left medical schools. These will not be touched by Mayo Clinic with a barge pole. Their knowledge so out of date. As for consultants in NHS hospitals, their performance pay individually is not known even to the hospital chief executives, as these are centrally paid and can be 100% of their pay.

    The VCs of some of the worst performing Post-92 universities in England have pay packets that should shame even my GP who works 4 days a week and takes home 0.25 million pounds every year. One of the VCs for example in a post-92 university in London which was caught massaging students’ drop out figures, and was fined over £30 millions to claw back the ill-gotten fund, still had his bonus in 6 figures!!

    In post-92s in England, the department has a plethora of administrative positions for everything imaginable (the latest fad is “quality”) which are given to “the chosen few “by the head of department to keep them in his/cabal, and these positions carry a huge hike in salary , but yet the department can have 40% drop out rate. These “chosen few” will almost always have the UCU shop steward for the deparment among them to keep him/her in the tent (a famous comment by American President Johnson comes to mind)through salary bribery.

    Dr Vince Cable, the business secretary in the coalition government at Westminster was reported to have been shocked by the pay packets of some of the VCs in English Universities. The head teachers in worst performing inner city schools in England easily take home 6 figure pay pavket, and their plethora of deputies not lagging behind in this area.

  5. Ernie Ball Says:

    It is true that they enjoy salaries that are above the international norm.

    Can you provide any evidence for this claim?

    I don’t believe it to be true, especially relative to the cost of living. If Irish salaries are high it is because the cost of living here is high. I’d wager that all salaries in all fields are higher than “the international norm” for that very reason. So why single out university staff?

  6. Colin Scott Says:

    If academic salaries in Ireland are relatively high in order to maintain competitiveness with overseas universities and an ability to recruit/retain then the scales are possibly too narrow at professorial level. In many UK universities not only is the salary range wider, but professors are expected to account for their peformance with a linkage to upward movement in pay.
    A piece in the Independent last week states that Canadian professors are paid on a scale between E61,000 and E83,000 and suggests this data may have come from the HEA. The Ontario universities all publish their salaries over C$100,000 under general public service legislation. This data reveals hundreds of professors paid over E100,000 and fair few paid over the Irish maximum of E146,000 in fields such as physics and management. The University of Toronto is one of the top payers.

  7. Colum McCaffery Says:

    On another blog I argued that a way to achieve a saving target in public sector pay was to introduce a maximum income. This was about a year ago when the State wanted a pay bill reduction. Considerable concern was expressed that lower paid workers shouldn’t have their salaries cut and this was a way of leaving the poor untouched. An anonymous public servant did the sums for me and put the maximum at €85k. This surprisingly low figure reflected the very poor pay of public servants generally. (The unions in their defence of ALL pay scored an own-goal by defending the rich in this instance.)

    The most bizarre and most common objection to the capping proposal was based on “fairness” and is quite like some of the objections here. It goes something like this: “It’s not fair to pick on any group of rich people, to reduce their incomes, unless all high income people are tackled at the same time.” “Fairness” has become such a weasel word, used by people to try to stop all reform. Gross inequality can continue until we have a hugely comprehensive reform! You see, no one ever says that they are in favour of gross inequality of income; they just happen to oppose any movement against it which is “unfair”.

    Another common objection was the fear of a “brain drain” or inability to attract already rich talent. Shane Ross, when discussing his book, said that his research had come across not one example of an Irish banker headhunted in this way. In any event, there are ways to deal with paying for exceptional – perhaps unique – but expensive talent which is motivated by money alone. (I seem to recall that the US football league deals with this while preventing the ludicrous salaries which will destroy their league.)

    When I first argued for maximum salaries, I was quite lonely. I’ve been joined now by Joan Burton, Fine Gael, Fintan O’Tooole, Vincent Browne, Ed Milliband and – wait for it! – David Cameron.

    Much of the credit for convincing people that gross inequality is bad must go to the authors of The Spirit Level. Here they are again in a recent piece: http://www.newstatesman.com/society/2010/11/inequality-social-health-essay

    Even €100k is a long way from the average industrial wage – not to mention the minimum wage. In the current situation it is mockery to ask all our citizens “share the pain”.

    Incidentally, re political information and debate about pay rates, this might be of interest: http://colummccaffery.wordpress.com/2009/11/16/a-speakers-income-as-political-information/

    • Vincent Says:

      The problem with that type of calculation, you have an assumption of one income to a household. And it is this type of thinking that has us where we are with housing. Also childcare, and many other things.
      Put simply, there was not one hope in hell for someone on the average industrial having kids or his/her own home, even to-day. And that’s insame.

    • Colum, I confess I find this topic difficult. On the one hand, I see and acknowledge the validity of ideals of public service not based on excessive enrichment. On the other hand, we expect academics to go through a qualifications process that takes many years and which would then make them attractive to much more lucrative careers.

      Furthermore, reducing the salaries of those above 100k suddenly is no easy thing, and would cause major repercussions, including I suspect home repossessions, as well as the scaling downwards of all academic pay bar the very lowest (in order to maintain promotional scales).

      I suspect your idea is easier to advocate in the abstract than to implement in practice.

      • copernicus Says:

        I agree with you about reducing now the salaries of professors who are paid 100K or more. My argument has always beeen that not all academics deserve 100K, when the average salary in England is 26K, but I see a greater number of them these days. Having said this, one might argue that these academics are also administrators managing funds, taking decisions, some times putting their careers on line, and hence deserve that extra slice of salary , as opposed to an academic who lectures and supervises his/her PhD students. I entered academia after working in industry as I wanted to do public service and prepare the next generation of educated people, and do research to enhance my knowledge and give a slice of it my students. If I was interested in more money I would have stayed where I was in industry and could have easily doubled my salary.

      • Al Says:

        Should it be a case of downsized expectations for the forseeable future?

        Arguably there is a danger in educational progression that one is making oneself more useless against the general premise that education makes one more useful.
        One could define use whatever way one wants.
        I have friends who have felt regret at taking post grad and doctoral qualifications. They feel that the oppurtunity cost wasnt worth it.

        Your argument against downsizing salaries is a little hollow.
        I could probably do a good job of it in 20 mins for a packet of peanuts.
        (15 if they dry roasted)
        There is plenty of fat at the Professorial scales that could be trimmed. They in reflection of the civil service grades, and all other ‘grades’ that got that comparison should be rendered.

        The home repossessions argument doesnt hold water either. I am in that position myself and I presume that my first port of call if there is a further pay cut, is a visit to the bank manager, if it is still around!, to extend the term and lower the individual payments.

  8. cormac Says:

    Also, the rank of professor in Ireland and in the UK is quite high, i.e. there are typically only a few professors per department (unlike in the US, say). If achieved at all (and many fine academics who taught me never did achieve it), it is usually a position that is achieved in mid or late career. Hence the salary that is earned…

  9. copernicus Says:

    @Otto: “If we stop being able to offer entry-level academics salaries which can just about compete with US research university salaries, we will cut ourselves off from students from the research institutions which constitute the main engine of ideas in many areas of the arts and sciences”
    “n short, we don’t have any ‘universities which really are the top’ in Ireland, and so we can’t afford to underpay the way Oxbridge does.”

    My argument has always been that academics should be offered the salaries they deserve, and should be individual- centric and this goes against the union’s argument of equal pay for all in the cadre. If they are not good what use are they to the students in terms of developing new ideas or any ideas at all. If they are good teachers pay them on a scale , or good researchers similar rewards and both no problem. But medicrity, in my opinion, no way of rewarding them.

    @Al: “There is plenty of fat at the Professorial scales that could be trimmed. They in reflection of the civil service grades, and all other ‘grades’ that got that comparison should be rendered”

    I agree, but then as I have said, the justification is the “administrative element”, whatever it is. The only way an academic can move up salary wise these days in Britain in universities other than the Russel Groups is to shouldder admin burden, and this is available for only a chosen few.
    @Cormac: I know a few “real professors” ( I was one in my previous life), and even today in places like UCL and imperial-outside the Oxbridge, they do not earn 100K.

    • Al Says:

      @ Copernicus

      I am not sure of the situation over there, but rest assured we have an obese administrative class who as a whole tied themselves into the top grade civil service pay grade inflation.

      • copernicus Says:


        I have worked in 3 different countries. In US, in state universities, there is a very fat academic structure. In the university there where I studied, the administrative fat is mind- boggling, and they have layers and layers of management structure, and they award themselves fatcat salaries too. In Britain, the post-92 universities are notorious for their administrative layers and pay and the miidle managent layers are excessive. They have civil service-like pay and bonuses like private enterise.

  10. copernicus Says:

    Sorry, this is not directly-related but has some impact.

    The Scottish Finance secretary John Swinney announced the 1 year budget, and this is reprted the Times Higher as: “… Mr Swinney, the Scottish National Party MSP for North Tayside, said the cut would be made “without detriment for the number of university and college places”.
    He added that the government remained committed to not introducing tuition fees..”

    I cannot see how the circles can be squared as nettles are not grasped. This is just an aspiration given there is the May 2011 Holyrood election. Getting a pot of money from the central govt and not cutting much and keeping all the freebies, well, even a 10 year old will not believe!

  11. Jane Says:

    I can only chip in with my own experience– fresh off the PhD I was offered two academic positions: one from a major R1 in the US, and one from an (admittedly less prestigious) Irish university. Salary played a big role in my decision to stay in Ireland– the salary offered by the Irish university was considerably higher, even taking into account higher taxes (some of this has of course dissipated in the recent cuts). That being said, I still won’t be able to afford a house for many years– folks forget that ‘starting’ salaries may seem artificially high, but most new PhDs have been in 3rd/4th level for at least 8-10 years (counting the BA, MA and PhD, etc) by the time they finally secure a position. I expect to spend the next few years paying off student loans and trying to save for a down payment; it’s hardly a champagne and caviar lifestyle!

  12. Colum McCaffery Says:

    I accept that this blog is about university matters – though it often tackles other themes. However, my point is that the response to a proposal to cap the income of university staff is essentially the same as a proposal to cap the income of any set of rich people.

    Is the problem a) opposition to any maximum pay in the public service, or b) opposition to €100k as being too low?

    I don’t assume one income per household. There is often a policy decision to be made as to whether to count individual or household income.(If Ferdinand ever gives figures as to the income levels he sees being subject to fees, he will have to make that decision.) The debate here is about killing three birds with one stone: a)a cap on the individual income of public servants would be a step towards addressing gross inequality; b) in the present crisis it would reduce the public pay bill; and c)it would go some of the way towards avoiding making a mockery of poorer people which is inherent in the “everyone must share the pain” argument.

    The point was made above that people on average pay are unable to afford a house. Because irresponsible lending, based on cheap international money, met up with media-induced desperation to “get on the property ladder” at any price, house prices – determined by what people were prepared to pay – reached daft levels. They have yet to fall back to a position close (in today’s value) to the prices achieved before the madness. A sensible price today for a three bedroom semi in a Dublin suburb should be about €163k. This figure is explained here: http://colummccaffery.wordpress.com/2010/06/11/house-prices-available-mortgages/
    The argument that high pay is necessary in Ireland because of the cost of living fails to single out house prices as the main difference.

    The argument that academics must serve a long and difficult “apprenticeship” is one offered by many others as a justification for high salaries. A few things need to be said. All high earners in a university are not academics. The question here focuses on the high end of academic pay, not on the pay of those just completing their “apprenticeship”. I don’t accept that they forego better salaries to embark on a career in Irish higher education. (See Jane above.)

    On the question of house repossession due to a salary cut, many people face this prospect today and it is likely to be caused by complete loss of income. There are details today of a new approach to those unable to pay their mortgages because of altered circumstances and last week a couple won a court decision to prevent eviction from an expensive house which they unwisely bought on the expectation that their inflated salaries would continue.

    A pay ceiling does not involve scaling down low wages in order to maintain differentials. On the contrary, the idea is to eliminate the huge differentials. Promotional scales, if they continue to exist, would be very modest.

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