Ireland's highest paid academic


He’s the man with the biggest pay packet in Irish education – earning €409,000 a year in his role as Vice President of Research at UCD. But some have are questioning Prof Des Fitzgerald’s remuneration package. So what are tax payers getting in return?

IF SALARY witch-hunts have become the stock-in-trade of Irish journalism, Freedom of Information requests are the burning torches. The latest to fall foul of FOI are the universities. A request in March smoked out the highest salaries in Irish academia, topped by the €409,000 pay packet of UCD’s Vice President of Reasearch, Prof Des Fitzgerald.

The discovery triggered the usual discharge of indignation from unions and commentators. The very notion that a small number of elite public sector workers were allowed to break free from salary grades irked everyday academics. Why did the Higher Edcuation Authority (HEA) allow universities to break the salary rules in 33 cases across the university sector? In the flurry of “faux egalitarianism”, as one observer has described it, there was scant examination of why Fitzgerald earns the best part of half a million euro a year.

A leading international scientist has described him as “one of only a handful of true change agents working in universities across the globe. He could earn infinitely more than €400,000 outside Ireland.” Before 2000, the most that UCD could have paid Des Fitzgerald was in the region of €100,000.

But in that year, the universities entreated the HEA to loosen the salary bonds. “The idea was that if, say, a Nobel Laureate could be attracted to lecture at a university but the salary on offer was inadequate, additional payments could be made,” says a spokesperson. “Since 2000, there have been a total of 33 ‘departures’ from normal scales across the university sector.” Fitzgerald’s ‘departure’ is transatlantic compared to the 32 other exceptional salaries in the system, 10 of which are to be found in UCD. He is not a Nobel Laureate, but his achievements are beyond the typical range of an Irish academic, say those who have worked with him.

“Scientifically, Des has played an important part in global public health,” says a medical researcher of international standing. “He has made two major contributions to heart health. For a decade, researchers had been working to link aspirin conclusively with lower incidence of heart attack but had been looking in the wrong places. Des shone the light. His research also changed the way that clot-busting drugs are used, making them doubly effective. These two discoveries have had a major impact on public health and propelled Des to international visibility.”

Since coming back to Ireland from Vanderbilt University (he is also an adjunct professor in the University of Pennsylvania) in the US, Fitzgerald has remained a leading figure in his field. The work has all been home grown, much of it funded by Science Foundation Ireland.

In the Irish context Fitzgerald has distinguished himself as an administrator too, say his supporters. “Des has been a change agent in two institutions in Ireland. Both the Royal College of Surgeons (RCSI) and UCD were relatively under-accomplished when he arrived. Prior to his arrival, the RCSI had a decorative indulgence in research. His return from the US coincided with the Government’s decision to start taking investment in science seriously, and Des rode that wave. He didn’t just secure the money, but did creative things with it. He had a tsunami-like effect on the RCSI.”

Fitzgerald was head-hunted from the RCSI by UCD president Hugh Brady in 2004. At that time it was not common practice for Irish universities to poach personnel from each other. Fitzgerald has since proven that he has no qualms about the manner of his appointment.

“Des did a number of local headhunts as soon as he arrived in UCD,” says an education insider. “Before that, Irish universities tended to reserve their headhunts for universities overseas. It created quite a bit of friction.”

The VP for Research is relatively new position in Irish education and it’s becoming clear that a bleeding heart is not an advantage. “Part of the VP’s job is to attract the best candidates to the job and keep them,” says a commentator. “That’s not easy when the best people will often wait for three or more offers and then use them as leverage. They are constantly being poached and VPs have to be tough and creative to hold on to them. This involves making unpopular decisions about the prioritisation of funds.”

Others suggest that Fitzgerald has stirred rancour in UCD and beyond for more fundamental reasons. “The exceptional salaries were conceived by the HEA to attract high-profile research professors from overseas,” says an observer. “They were not designed for administrative posts, but Hugh Brady got his hands on them and extended the remit. Fitzgerald was not a big player in the sector and he was appointed ahead of others. Universities like DCU stuck by the remit of the ‘departure’ salary and they have suffered as a result.”

Fitzgerald is not, on the face of it, too concerned about his critics. Described as a “shrewd operator” with a “wicked and sophisticated sense of humour”, the medic has “what most medics have – a supreme confidence and detachment,” says an education leader.

He lives in Howth, Co Dublin with his wife and two daughters and is an accomplished sailor and swimmer. He took up the position of UCD Professor of Molecular Medicine and Vice President for Research simultaneously, in 2004.

“His own accomplishments in science have taught him to recognise excellence in other fields,” says a senior academic. “This is a rare skill and fundamental to his job. He’s able to pick a winner, or recruit one. He has done an extraordinary job at UCD. It was a place no one took seriously outside Ireland. Now people are starting to believe that things can happen there.

“It’s not easy to bring about that kind of change in Ireland. There’s a great legion of the rearguard who want to defend mediocrity with every weapon available to them.”

Another leading educational figure agrees that attitudes have hardened against the likes of Fitzgerald for less-than-noble reasons. “Irish higher education has an unusual degree of salary homogeneity, which leads to a sort of fake egalitarianism – people feel entitled to certain salaries regardless of achievement. In the UK and the US there is much greater differentiation between the high fliers and the rest.”

However, he cautions, the solution is not to throw exorbitant sums around without justification. “There is a premium paid to medics based on the notion that they can earn more elsewhere, but they do earn more elsewhere – medics have the opportunity for substantial private earnings. Universities must justify exceptional salaries in concrete terms. ‘Departures’ of this type have to be plausible in the eyes of reasonable opinion. What has been the increase in research funding under Des Fitzgerald’s vice-presidency? How high has UCD climbed in international rankings?”

The figures are available (see panel); Fitzgerald has certainly achieved a great deal. Whether it’s enough to satisfy critics of his earnings is another matter. Fitzgerald is steering research in the largest university in the State and we may be heading into an era of reduced funds, although to date RD is possibly the only pocket of public life that has escaped budget cuts.

However, when Fitzgerald got involved in the Irish research scene activity was low and competition slight. “The quality of bids for research funding from Irish universities has radically improved over the last 10 years,” says one medical academic.

Meanwhile, Minister for Education Batt O’Keeffe has called on highly-paid public servants to surrender their boomtime salaries. Fitzgerald will have to work hard for his money, if he can hold on to it.