Let's pay lecturers what they are really worth
The Independent 11 October 1990
UP and down the land, as they drag themselves back from their summer sojourns in French gites and their conference circuit jaunts across Europe or the States, university academics are once again taking up the familiar cry: we are undervalued! We are underpaid! We are the victims of the short-sighted Philistincs who run this wretched government!
Last week on this page. Aylmer Johnson, a Cambridge engineering lecturer, belaboured the Government for "scorning" his profession
and allowing academic salaries to fall dramatically relative to other professions, and said that if only they were paid more, the British economy could boom like that of Germany.
Let us begin with the salary levels. It is true that academic salaries have fallen relative to those of some other professions. It does not automatically follow that they are now too low. It could be that they were too high in the past, or that professions which once attracted lower pay are now more in demand.
Neither does it follow that academics are now somehow badly-off. I estimate that Aylmer Johnson is earning around £20,000 a year, disregarding any income from royalties or consultancies (or articles for newspapers). This is not a fortune, but it still puts him comfortably in the upper-third of earners. To suggest that "many" people are earning three or four times this amount is absurd. He is comparing himself with the top l or 2 per cent of income earners. If he really believes that university teachers should he ptart of this elite, then he should say so.
Johnson suggests that "low" salary levels "can only attract mediocre staff". However, as he himself recognises, this is certainly not the case in all subjects. There seems no shortage of bright and enthusiastic historians, literary critics and socologists willing to throw their hats into the ring whenever one of these "poorly paid" academic posts falls vacant. Indeed, it could even be argued that a substantial
hike in basic salaries might reduce rather than improve the quality of applicants in these subjects, for it would serve to attract those who are less devoted to the academic vocation and who currently go off in search of other, better paid, occupations.
None of this is to deny there is a problem. Some subjects - and engineering is one - do experience difficulties in recruiting top staff. All subjects are still burdened with too many mediocre staff. There is a promotion blockage that discourages many committed and hard working academics who fee that their efforts go unrecognised. The answer, however, is not to jack up everybody's pay, but to reform
the salary system.
Why, for example. does everybody get an automatic increment every year (until they reach the top of the scale) irrespective of
performance? Why does everybody get the same percentage pay rise every year irrespective of achievement? Why is it still impossible
to sack incompetent lecturers and replace them with bright and enthusiastic recruits?
Why, given that some subjects cannot attract staff while others are beseiged by potential applicants, do we continue to pay engineers, lawyers and computer whizzes the same as art historians, political scientists and environmental studies buffs? Why are those in the strongest departments in the best universities paid exactly the same as those in the weakest departments in the worst universities? Why is there no attempt to pay inspiring teachers more than dull ones, or active researchers more than inert ones? Why do those who treat the job as a two days a week, 30 weeks a year ,sinecure draw the same salary as those who devote themselves to it heart and soul? Why, in short, are we so reluctant to discriminate?
If the aim of people such as Aylmer johnson really is to raise standards, then this will be achieved by recognising and rewarding the best while penalising the shoddy or second rate. This means we we should not be looking to increase salaries across the board. Rather, we need to move away from collective bargaining in favour of radical decentralisation.
Different universities need to be able to offer different salary packages in different subjects, and individual academics need to be able to negotiate their own deals based on evidence of their competence. We need more promotions, more sackings, more performance evaluation, more accountability to those who consume our sservices (students, employers and government) and more variability in pay levels.
What we need, after more than 10 years of Thatcher government, is some attempt to apply Thatcherite principles to higher education.