Portraying academics as overpaid and underworked is unfair

January 2011 – By Professor William Reville, University College Cork.

General perceptions of academics’ workloads are absurdly wrong and, in contrast to the recent media reports, an academic career is no leisurely stroll through the honeypots, writes WILLIAM REVILLE

‘I’M MAD as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore.” This was Howard Beale’s (played by Peter Finch) memorable catchphrase in the 1976 film Network , in which he railed against the absurdities of the world. Beale’s catchphrase mirrors my reaction to the recent media portrayal of university academics as overpaid and underworked. This analysis is distorted and unfair and general perceptions of academic workloads are absurdly wrong. My comments today refer exclusively to university scientists, the sector I know best. My comments on academic salaries are meant to put them in context with other public professionals.

Many people think university lecturers are on holiday over the summer months and mid-term breaks. Totally untrue. Lecturers work over the summer on their research, taking, say, three to four weeks’ holidays. Most will also take a week’s break at Christmas and Easter, but they normally work for 46 to 47 weeks per year. And they do not take mid-term breaks.

Public perception interprets a university academic lecturing load of 180 hours over the 30- week annual lecturing period as six hours work per week (report of recent Dáil Public Accounts Committee). This ignores the fact that you must multiply 180 by at least four to calculate the total hours worked: 720 hours or 18 standard 40hr weeks. The four-fold multiplication is necessary to account for lecture preparation/

updating, lecture review before delivery, exams, supervising literature projects and laboratory classes, etc. A typical lecturer spends 30 to 40 per cent of time on such activities.

Another 40 to 60 per cent of a lecturer’s time is spent on research. A typical lecturer will supervise two or three postgraduate students, one post-doctoral associate and a research assistant. This is equivalent to running a small business. The laboratory must be equipped and the five staff paid with money from research grants won by the lecturer. The average lecturer writes two grant applications per year, each taking about four weeks of his/her time.

The lecturer must publish research results (average three papers per year) in scientific journals and submit regular progress reports to the funding agencies. Even the simplest paper takes a week to prepare – complex papers take much longer. Lecturers must attend scientific conferences (average one week per year) in order to remain up to date.

Twenty per cent of a lecturer’s time is spent on essential administrative duties (safety committees, time-tabling committees, ethics committees, etc) and on outreach activities (public lectures, school visits, etc). I know of no science lecturer/professor at UCC who is not very busy – 50 hour weeks are common.

Recent media comment concludes that Irish academic salaries are unjustifiably inflated compared to salaries elsewhere in Europe. I wrote a column on this topic on Nov. 26th, 2009 (also see understandingscience.ucc.ie). Basically, the gap between Irish and European salaries narrows considerably when cost of living is considered.

Media analysis of academic salaries is distorted because it mostly concentrates on professors’ salaries – the top of the academic tree – and doesn’t make comparisons with other public sector professionals. Academic salaries (Euro) range as follows (the % figure means the per cent of academic staff in that category; the second figure within the brackets is the number of points on this salary range): Professor €108,000-€138,600 (8.8%, 6); Associate Professor €91,600-€107,200 (5.7%, 6); Senior Lecturer €63,800-€89,400 (21%, 8); Lecturer €59,200-€77,500 (35%, 12); Junior Lecturer €33,600-€54,100 (27%, 12).

Only 14.5 per cent of academic staff reach professor/associate professor level, after climbing a long ladder and achieving international prominence, and only 8.8 per cent reach the highest pay scale. Some 83 per cent of academics are paid between €33,600 and €89,400 per annum. And before you can even start out at €33,600 as a Junior Lecturer you are already at least 30 years of age because the essential apprenticeship is so long. An academic career is no leisurely stroll through the honeypots.

Professors are well paid, but why not? All high-level public professionals are well paid. Consider medicine and law. The salary offered for the new medical consultant contract was €250,000, with routine top-ups bringing this to €300,000 – double the salary of a professor. A judge’s salary is €148,000 (District Court), €178,000 (Circuit Court), €243,000 (High Court), €258,000 (Supreme Court). I cannot understand why medical consultants or judges are paid more than professors but I see no media analysis of this point.

Do Irish academics provide value for money? In November 2009 the European Commission published a survey of the 27 OECD countries – Study on the Efficiency and Effectiveness of Public Spending on Tertiary Education. Ireland ranked second on the criterion of graduates produced per student, second on number of graduates per academic staff, and ninth on number of publications per academic (ahead of Germany, France and USA).

(This article first appeared in The Irish Times on Thursday, December 2, 2010.)

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