Posted tagged ‘salaries’

Irish universities and salary top-ups

December 18, 2013

Topping up the salaries of senior executives is not in vogue right now, as is well known. In the Celtic Tiger years in Ireland, however, it was not unusual, and universities were not particularly exceptions. According to figures now released by the Higher Education Authority (HEA), Ireland’s seven universities spent a total of €7.2 million on unauthorised top-ups between 2005 and 2011, and the Authority has now declared that it is withholding half of this amount, albeit on a phased basis, from the institutional grants until that sum has been repaid. The other half will have to be spent by the universities on student services.

The university most affected by this will be University College Dublin, which will have €1.6 million withheld; the one least affected is my former university, Dublin City University, with €27,000 being withheld (and in this case, as it covers a period during which I was President, I might add that the sum in question had been authorised by the HEA, but never mind).

I might say right away that I am totally opposed to salary top-ups; these fail all kinds of tests, including obvious transparency and fairness tests. I did not allow any such payments in DCU (the small top-up mentioned above was decided and authorised before my time as President). However, one might still question what is being done by the HEA. First, I am of the view that payments and salaries in universities should be controlled by their governing bodies, not by the government. Secondly, even if top-ups are wrong (as I think they are), withholding a sum of money as ‘punishment’ is an entirely counter-productive response. The first time, when the top-ups were paid, the money in question was in essence removed from the funds available to resource teaching and student support; now the HEA is removing these sums (or half of them) for a second time from students by withholding them from institutional grants; that makes no sense to me.

As the government itself believes, top-up payments are no longer made anywhere in the Irish university system. That is really a good bit of progress. Punishing current students for excessive payments made to senior staff in the past is much more doubtful. What the story does tell us, however, is that universities need to be open and transparent in how they pay staff, and senior staff in particular.


What’s your degree worth?

May 30, 2011

It is often claimed that university graduates earn significantly more than those without higher education qualifications. But in the United States at least (and certainly on this side of the Atlantic also) not every degree has the same impact on earning power. The US journal Chronicle of Higher Education has published details of median earnings enjoyed by graduates from certain university degree programmes, and it is clear from the figures that some graduates are able to earn considerably more than others. The figures are median earnings, so that they do not represent the upper limits of earning power.

The highest median salaries, according to this list, are enjoyed by graduates of petroleum engineering ($120,000), while the lowest pay can be expected by graduates of counselling psychology ($29,000). Other degrees whose graduates are very good earners are pharmaceutical sciences ($105,000), computer science ($98,000) and aerospace engineering ($87,000). In fact, engineers overall are the highest earners. Other poorly paid graduates have degrees in theology ($38,000), social work ($39,000), botany ($42,000).

What this tells us is that some graduates can indeed fairly quickly command high salaries, but that other are far less likely to be able to covert their degrees into pay. While it is easy to see why petroleum engineers are in demand and thus well paid, it is harder to see the reason for either high or low pay in other professions that require higher education qualifications. Some of it is connected with the value that we, as a society, either do or do not attach to certain jobs.

Assuming the figures published in the Chronicle are not wholly out of line with the position in this part of the world, they should raise certain questions in the debate on university funding and tuition fees. If certain degrees don’t secure higher salaries, then the case for graduate contributions in those fields is weak. This might suggest that tuition fees (where they exist) should not be the same across all subject areas.

Students vs staff in the Great Crisis?

December 13, 2010

According to some reports, the Union of Students in Ireland (USI) have called for a renegotiation of the Croke Park agreement – the agreement between the Irish government and the public sector trade unions under which further pay cuts for public servants were ruled out – in order to protect student ‘frontline services’. Although I have not seen any elaboration of this demand, it means, presumably, that the USI want salaries to be cut and the savings re-allocated to the teaching and student services budgets in the universities and colleges.

It is unlikely, I would think, that the government will want to re-open the Croke Park agreement just for the universities, and in any case that would generate a fairly strong union response. But it will be interesting to see whether this demand gets traction, and what the nature of the debate will be, should there be one. I am not aware, so far, of any trade union response, nor indeed any response by the universities and institutes.

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

September 21, 2010

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.

Just deserts?

September 19, 2010

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.

Are we over-paid?

August 17, 2009

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…