November 2011 – By Professor William Reville, University College Cork.
Salaries in the public sector are increasingly coming under critical scrutiny as the budget looms closer. I regularly read criticisms of the ‘high salaries’ paid to university lecturers and professors, pointing out that they are significantly better paid than academics elsewhere in Europe. For example, a detailed piece along these lines, written by Darragh McCullough, appeared in The Farmers Journal, 15th August 2009. Academic salaries are particularly relevant to science since most scientific research in Ireland is done by third level academics.
Lecturers (the most junior academic grade) in Irish universities are paid a salary range of 35,541 – 83,344 Euro (17 increments). McCullough compared the salary scales of Senior Lecturers and Professors at the Universities of Rotterdam, Leeds and UCC, three universities judged to be of equal standing. (Of course it should be pointed out that academic salaries at UCC are identical to academic salaries in the other Irish universities). The following are the salary ranges (starting salary – finishing salary) for Senior Lecturers at Rotterdam, Leeds and UCC respectively: 44,589-69,361 Euros; 53,017-67,160 Euros; 68,197-101,714 Euros – and for Professor: 68,440-120,329 Euros; 63,307-85,075 Euros; 117,276-158,644 Euros. Finally, Irish Associate Professor are paid 99,097-116,386 Euros.
Although Irish university academics are paid more than their EU counterparts, a significant fraction of the difference can be justified by the greater cost of living in Ireland. The latest Central Statistics Office figures show that, since 1998, Ireland has become considerably more expensive and since 2002 our price levels for final consumption by private households have been about 25% above the EU average.
While cost of living largely justifies the difference between Irish salaries and Rotterdam salaries, it doesn’t fully account for the difference between Ireland and the UK. However, I think the pertinent question here is – why are UK salaries so low? 85,000 Euro is the top of the salary scale for a UK professor, which is, in my opinion, far too low in view of the qualifications required, the hard work and productivity, and the long years required to climb the top of the academic ladder to professor. And, of course, only a small minority (9%) of academics make it to the top. One reason why UK academic salaries are so modest is that Margaret Thatcher put the UK third level system into a blender and switched it on at high speed. The UK system has never recovered since.
Irish salaries at professor level are undoubtedly comfortable. Professors benefited from an 8% increase early in 2009 (also given to senior civil servants, judges and so on), an increase not given to more junior academic grades. But there is nothing extraordinary about salaries along the long academic ladder that ascends to professor. Lecturer salaries start at 35,541 Euros. Lecturers are usually about 30 years old when they begin their careers, having already taken a primary degree, a PhD and postdoctoral training, and only a small minority reach the top. In the famous Benchmarking 1 exercise, most university academics got an increase of 3%, just about the lowest award made to any sector. This raised the equivalent scales in the Institute of Technology sector over the University sector for the first time.
McCullough’s article doesn’t mention the obvious fact that if you compare the income of just about any category of employee in Ireland with their EU counterparts you find that the Irish person is paid more. Our Taoiseach, Ministers, TDs, senior civil servants, medical doctors, dentists, pharmacists, nurses, teachers, police, and so on, are all paid more than their EU counterparts. Our minimum wage, unemployment benefits and general social welfare payments are much higher in Ireland than in most EU countries. So, it is no surprise that university lecturers in Ireland are paid somewhat more than their EU counterparts.
However, if you compare Irish academic salaries with the incomes of many other professionals in Ireland, you get a different picture. For example, a professor is paid only a fraction of what a medical consultant earns, or a successful lawyer or banker or financial consultant or business person.
Negative comments are also made frequently about how hard university academics work. Such arguments are usually based on undergraduate lecture contact hours. But this is only part of the work of a university academic. In addition to giving undergraduate lectures academics must also train PhD students and supervise their research, supervise senior undergraduate research projects, supervise research assistants and technicians, write applications for research grants, manage research and teaching laboratories, sit on university committees, undertake departmental administrative duties, deliver public lectures, and much more. All the lecturers I know work at least a 50 hour week and take only a few weeks annual leave. University academics are worth the money they are paid. Well, most of them are. I have a list ………
(This article first appeared in The Irish Times on 27th November, 2009.)