On academic salaries

I don’t normally feel the need to criticize anything in Mary Beard’s blog but her post from 7 July is a good example of a misunderstanding about their salaries that academics in the UK are quite blind to, and I don’t know how many of that breed (of which I’m a member) take my view. She opens tentatively.

I am not expecting huge support on this one, but let me try anyway. Give us a hearing.

It’s the ‘us’ that makes me want to challenge her (and the commonly held view she is voicing). The post is about the loss of a perk at Cambridge, a free dinner for examiners after the exam process is finished, during which she says that business matters continue partly to be discussed. The loss of this perk pisses her off, and the comments on the post suggest that she’s got overwhelming support. The crux is the parenthesis at the end of this passage:

OK, I realise that I am lucky to work in what is still a relatively rich university and faculty, and I realise that there are people in the tertiary sector who couldn’t even expect a free drink from their employers. But all the same,I feel annoyed to be caught up in what seems to be a fall out of the Parlimentary Expenses row ( a totally risk averse policy, as if the Daily Telegraph was about to expose the university sector for being on the make….come on, who on the make would become an academic?)

I have no problem with Beard at all; she’s just saying what everyone says. It’s a commonplace among British academics to suggest that they are poorly paid, and that nobody would enter the profession for financial benefit alone. Certainly, relative to doctors, lawyers, and anyone working above a certain level in the City, academics are paid less. But what a hell of a cohort to compare oneself to. Compared to the general population we’re rolling in it. The Annual Survey of Hours and Earnings (2010), whose ‘data is drawn from HM Revenue & Customs (HMRC) and Pay As You Earn (PAYE) records’, can be read here. ‘Higher education teaching professionals’ come in 26th position out of the 402 salaried job types that are listed here, with an average salary of £41,136, up 2% on the previous year. True, there are irritations in the academic system, so that most people hit a pay ceiling (which is around £55,000) after maybe 15 years in the job, and will never earn more unless they whore themselves from university to university as professors, whose salaries are not bound (for frankly immoral reasons) to the nationally agreed pay scale. (Professors frequently command salaries in the high 80s, 90s, and even into six figures, depending on prestige, discipline, and – most important – genitalia. See this Times Higher Education feature on a recent legal fight over the gender gap in professorial salaries at my own institution; don’t worry, despite the name, it has no connexion with Murdoch any more.) But although standard of living might remain on a level for twenty years or so of an academic’s career, it’s scarcely a low level.

The graph below shows the distribution of salaries in that report. A larger version is available if you click the image, but you don’t need to because the fifth vertical line of text from the right on this table gives an idea of the location of average academic salaries in the distribution (the line indicates train drivers, who earn £43 a year more, on average, than academics).

British academics come, on average, virtually at the top of the long, slow rising portion of the graph in which the overwhelming majority of people find themselves. (Of course I’m aware that the voluptuary salaries of £400K-plus vice chancellors and their administrative cabals will distort the data a little, but I suspect that the abusively low salaries that are paid to short-term-contracted staff or academics at the start of their careers will more than balance that.) Note the fantastic leap in the last nanometer of the graph, where some of the expected high-earning jobs (directors and chief executives of major organisations, corporate managers and senior officials, financial managers and chartered secretaries, brokers, solicitors and lawyers, judges and coroners, etc.) are to be found. And remember that while this list is divided into only 402 jobs, those 402 jobs are not equally distributed among the population: the very top jobs are occupied by only a tiny, tiny percentage – so the shape of this graph, were it to represent heads of population, would show an even more impressive climb at the right-hand side. The benefit of such an income distribution for the capitalist class is of course that the majority is pacified. Differences between salaries, as most individuals look to the left and right of themselves in related jobs, don’t seem so huge, and pay seems fair. This disguises the fact that the top blip on a graph controls a majority of the money, and hence power, in the world.

Academics suffer here, I think, from two problems, one historical, one comparative. Historically, the academic profession (like every other ‘profession’ in that pompous sense that people use the term, basically to mean the kind of job for which you need a university education and solid connexions, ideally built up during school days) has been dominated by the congenital bourgeoisie, people whose families have been academics, solicitors, government ministers, back to the dawn of time. A stroll around North Oxford demonstrates the economic reality here. (And to preempt anyone who says ‘Gosh, but when I bought my house on Crick Road, it only cost £20’: yes, I know, but that was generations ago, and everyone else was living in houses worth pennies in relation to yours. The social power you have now is a reflexion of the social power you had then, but you’re simply trying to mystify it by comparing incommensurable house prices across decades as a smokescreen. I won’t have it.) Time was academics could afford to live in the most expensive and luxurious houses in the country. This isn’t, according to another academic myth, because academic salaries used to be so much higher (though they did), but because academics used, on average, to be higher up the social scale even than they are now. They didn’t buy those houses on their salaries; they bought them with their family money, which was appropriated over many generations. There are still academics, of course, who live in North Oxford, or in houses with 0207 phone numbers, and although statistics aren’t to hand I think they’re now in the minority. But there’s certainly no hope that anyone earning around £40,000 could hope to buy houses such as one I see (from a quick google) to have just sold in Norham Gardens for £3.7m. And that creates a sense of injustice. ‘What has that guy done to warrant that house? It must be that I’m underpaid as an academic!’ No: it just means you don’t have his inherited wealth and power.

And this leads to the second problem, that of comparisons. Academics without family money may be tempted to look at people in their own departments who live in properties such as my last example (or even just a 2-up 2-down in South Oxford, which at more than £400,000 is out of the range of academics without family money) and feel quite sorry for themselves.  And if they look at the palatial properties their old university friends who went to work for McKinsey or Goldman Sachs or whatever are now living in, the sense of self-pity becomes unbearable.

My own view is that academics earn a fantastic salary. I can afford to live in comfort, to eat well, to go to all the theatre and opera I want to, and to take regular holidays. I have no family money: this standard of living is provided entirely by my academic salary. My advice to students is always the opposite of the self-pitying whining that I hear from the rest of my academic colleagues, when I hear them talk about the profession to their students at all. Unless students want to go and work in the City, or as a lawyer, or as a CEO of a ruthless and morally corrupt firm, being an academic is the best-paid job they could wish for. As a career it provides incalculable personal benefits. I would do nothing else even if the academic life genuinely did not pay well. But it pays stupendously well and I wish that the discourse in the academy would change. It’s frankly embarrassing. We should stop comparing ourselves to people whose salaries are inimical, and should shed the historical burden of the centuries of congenital middle classes who went before us in the profession. The more poor but intellectually brilliant students we can encourage to make a career out of academia, the less of this disingenuous whining there’ll be, and the better the place will be in general.

2 thoughts on “On academic salaries

  1. This is a brilliant post. Thank you. I know the instinct to whine is universal and one ought not to hold academics to a higher standard, but it is still refreshing to received wisdom being tested in this way.

  2. Dear Harper-Scott,
    Thanks for this good post. I have, however, an objection to make. You wrote:
    As a young academic myself, the first reason I got into academia was that I thought it is the job were people are genuine and honest. My experience right now is telling the opposite. The new generation landing the top professor position are those faking the `number of papers’. A top professor these days is the man of rubbish publisher (though not only the UK it is a worldwide phenomenon!). It is very disheartening to see that!! So as oppose to what you wrote academia these days is under a serious threat of a ‘HEAVY CORRUPTION TOO!’ I only see a handful of possessors with good quality scientific publications. The other vast majority don’t impress at all (The same paper hundred times instead of doing science!)

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