Universities say higher salaries are vital to attracting top talent

Move to ease pay caps could lead to pressure for higher salaries in top tier of public sector

Minister for Education Richard Bruton. Photograph: Aidan Crawley

Minister for Education Richard Bruton. Photograph: Aidan Crawley

 

When Irish universities go headhunting in a bid to attract the very best in international talent, they tend to get the same reaction.

“One academic asked us if there was a misprint in the salary we quoted,” said one third-level source. “We’re not at the races for when it comes to competing against the top research university systems for the best scientists or engineers.”

Historically, salaries in Irish universities have been linked to civil and public service grades which – by international standards – are very generous. For example, professors can earn between €101,000 and €136,000, more than the average for many of the countries we compete against.

The problem for Irish universities is these salaries are capped under strict rules known as the employment control framework. In theory, no one can earn more than the Taoiseach, who is on a salary of about €190,000.

This means colleges here face an uphill task in luring top professors and researchers, given they stand to earn far more abroad.

By contrast, salaries are not capped in countries with the best performing third-level institutions, such as the UK, US and a number of European states.

These pay restrictions seem difficult to square with Minister for Education Richard Bruton’s oft-stated ambition of making Ireland’s the best education system in Europe.

The official policy of the State-funded body, Science Foundation Ireland (SFI), is to seek to attract “world-leading scientists and engineers” to help enhance our reputation as a location to carry out high-impact, high-quality research.

That is why, under a significant change in policy, third-level institutions are now being allowed to hire top academic talent above these public sector pay caps. Appointments will be linked to SFI-funded research projects, although salaries will be paid by individual colleges. It is understood pay will be capped at €250,000.

Over the past decade, universities have become evermore reliant on private sources of funding, to the point where State funding now accounts for less than half of the income of our biggest universities.

It is understood the Department of Education, along with the Department of Business, Enterprise and Innovation, has supported the changes.

However, the Department of Public Expenditure – whose job it is to watch the national purse strings – has not been so keen. It is careful to avoid knock-on claims across the public sector and is understood to be satisfied the current arrangements should avoid this.

Pay scales

As it stands, salary scales across the upper echelons of academia look remarkably healthy – even at a time when many colleges argue they are in a financial crisis. Almost 1,000 staff across the higher-education sector earn more than €100,000. While professors can earn up to €136,000, more senior appointments, such as registrars, directors or university presidents, may earn between €140,000 and €190,000.

While 63 staff earn more than €200,000, most are academic medical consultants whose salaries are paid by the Health Service Executive.

These salaries come against a backdrop of claims that colleges have been misusing public money, along with other damaging revelations at the Public Accounts Committee of poor governance.

New appointments on high salaries may be of key strategic importance in attracting the best staff to Ireland. It’s doubtful, in the current environment, if all members of the public will see it in quite the same way.