Are academics in Ireland paid too much? Or is that the wrong question?


LEFTFIELD: ON FRIDAY the Comptroller and Auditor General – who monitors and audits the management of public finances – issued a special report on resource management and performance in the universities. A few of the findings published in the document have been widely reported, and in the light of some of these it may be tempting to believe that our higher education system is full of people in receipt of large bonuses and generous allowances, and perhaps people who are generally over-paid. Is this true? asks FERDINAND VON PRONDZYNSKI

Well, during my time as DCU president I have had conflicting experiences, particularly when undertaking international recruitment (vital to Ireland’s ambition to be a knowledge economy). Sometimes I was unable to complete the appointment of some key academic because they just weren’t interested in what we could pay, as they could earn much more where they were.

But then again, on one occasion we appointed a really excellent academic, who told me shortly afterwards that he was delighted by his salary, which was much higher than what he could have expected in his country of origin.

So what’s the story, then? Are we too generous, or not generous enough? Do we over-pay academics, or do we exploit them? There isn’t a clear answer to this. The first thing to say is that “we” – the universities themselves – really do nothing at all. We have little or no discretion as to what we pay our staff. Yes, we know there have been these allowances and bonuses, but overall only a very small number have received them, and they have stopped.

Otherwise, in Ireland’s third-level sector all pay is tied to public service scales, and academic salaries go up (and down) in accordance with those scales. The universities are not consulted on this. This is a serious issue in itself, because pay constitutes by far the largest element in costs, and therefore universities are not really in control of their budgets.

Still, by international standards academics in Ireland are not paid badly. The lecturer salary scale starts at around €35,000, and increments can take you roughly as far as €80,000. This is the scale that applies to the majority of academics for the whole of their career. For the very small number who make it as far as professor, they can earn up to around €150,000.

In line with the rest of the public sector, academic salaries have been reduced over the past year, and levies and the like have also been taken off, but even after all that it would have to be said that these salaries are not miserly. Furthermore, they are significantly higher than what is earned by academics in other countries. Irish academic salaries are about 40 per cent higher than those in the UK, and twice those available in Germany. On the other hand, in those countries universities are not tied to any scales, and when they need to they can offer whatever seems necessary, so some earn much more. But then again, look at what you have to do to qualify.

These days no one is appointed to any academic post, including a junior lectureship, if they do not have a PhD. In other words, in order to become an academic you have to do your undergraduate degree for three or four years, and then you have to spend another three or four years doing a doctorate. By then you could become a hot property on the jobs market, and people who have in this way qualified as academics might, if they chose a different career, very quickly be earning quite a lot more. It is not that rare an occurrence for a lecturer to meet a student five or so years after graduation and find that they are now earning more than their teacher.

And then again, look at the working conditions. Occasionally people mutter that Irish academics don’t work very hard or don’t have very long hours. Not only is that untrue – on average, most academics work well in excess of 50 hours per week, and quite a few over 70 hours – but they increasingly work under appalling conditions of stress. In addition, part-timers and casual lecturers are exploited and treated quite unreasonably.

While I’m at it, what about presidents? While I was president of DCU, every so often I would hear a minister make public comments about how presidents are over-paid and should volunteer a pay cut. Batt O’Keeffe was very fond of saying this to journalists, though it must be said, never face-to-face to me (or as far as I know, any other president). And yes, university presidents are well paid, though ironically in their case they earn much less than in other countries. In the US and the UK university heads can be earning twice as much and more. The problem is that such pay is not in any way linked to performance, which would be an obvious reform and would force presidents to demonstrate their effectiveness and their value for money.

So what am I concluding? The main issue in Ireland is not whether academic pay is too high or too low. It is set without any reference to higher education. It’s just a public service scale.

There is a real need for reform, but this should be based on the aim of giving universities more control over their expenditure, and allowing academics to be assessed and rewarded in accordance with the contribution they make to higher education and in the interests of the wider community. Universities need to graduate from being public service bureaucracies to being autonomous centres of knowledge, learning and research. Pay is part of that process of maturing.