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May 22, 2006

Yawning Gaps - The Problem of University Pay: national pay scales for academics should be scrapped, argues former Head of Department Jon Davies

Posted by Jon Davies

Universities find it difficult to employ suitably qualified law lecturers. Fine - increase their pay, argues Jon Davies, formerly Head of Religious Studies at Newcastle University. But does this mean that, for example, the pay of classics or medieval history lecturers - where there is no shortage of people willing to teach the subject - should also be increased? Jon Davies thinks not and calls for an end to national pay scales for academics.

University teachers are now, in sufficiently large numbers, willing to do something which in the past they have always refused to do: to take "industrial" action which will damage the prospects of students they know face to face, who they have been teaching for three years, and who, in the main, they actually like and look after. The two unions involved - NATFHE and AUT (NATFHE is the driver in this dispute) - say it is all the fault of the employers. The employers say their hands are tied. To date, the Government has been rather quiet; and the Opposition, in the shape of Boris Johnson, has waffled.

The main gripe is the "Yawning Gap" between academics and what they consider to be their proper comparators in other branches of the public sector: Top cop gets 20k more than professor headlined the THES (12th May 2006). Top teachers, top consultants, top cops - all get more than top academics.

Such headlines, and such comparators, assume that any reasonable person would react to such a revelation with shock and horror. It is true that academic pay has fallen behind that of top cops, top teachers and top medics. So what?

Need there be any such thing as "a university pay structure"? Or should pay vary from subject to subject? There is a shortage of lawyers, apparently. This means that universities wishing to teach law have either to use cheaper (inferior) teachers because the high-fliers are earning huge sums of money elsewhere; or pay more for good ones, even if they cannot afford the very best; or simply stop teaching law if what they can get at the price they can afford is of really seriously poor quality. On the other hand, there is no shortage of people wanting to teach medieval history or classics. Why should such people, top though they might well be in their field, for whom doing what they love anyway is a large reward, be paid as much as a top cop? Why should we be expected to pay a top medieval historian the same as a top lawyer simply in order to get the top lawyer?

Further, in terms of value for money and/or use to the nation, much of what the hundred or so universities now churn out is not worth too much. A uniform national pay scale, "topped"-up or not, means that we will be paying Harrods' prices for Woolworths' goods. There is nothing wrong with goods from Woolworths: I buy many of my Christmas presents there but I pay Woolworths prices. Christmas would become unaffordable if I had to buy all my presents at Harrods, or unbelievably squalid if I had to buy them all at Woolworths, or both unaffordable and unbelievably squalid if I had to buy all my presents at Woolworths at prices laid down by Harrods which is what NATFHE and the AUT want.

The main causes of The Yawning Gap are:
(1) John Major's magical wand which transformed good (and cheap) polytechnics into poor (but expensive) universities: and

(2) the remarkably silly policy of trying to push half the age group into "university2, even though, as is obvious, many of them either don't want to go there, or shouldn't be there, or who, once they are there, are doing courses which have little value beyond keeping such "students" off the streets.

It's not much good "academics" - a decent number of whom are in fact academics grousing about Yawning Gaps when they sit on the Widening Chasm caused by these two very, very, stupid moves. A small university system, of genuine universities, was affordable, and tucked away among the relatively large proportion of useful and productive people who worked there, were a small number of eccentrics and obsessives for whom such places were the only home. Both were affordable as long as the system was small, petty cash.

The university system is now a big visible part of the Budget. It is a big mistake for academics to now stand up in their very large numbers, to defend (even if simply by not opposing, and having never opposed) the Major-Blair expansion and at the same time to ask the public to make some comparison between them and top cops, top soldiers and top judges. Dangerous game. Wrong question.

A better question would be: who needs a university system? Who needs, who can afford, 100+ expensive institutions, all with increasingly disproportionate site and management costs? Pay for subjects, not for institutions. Increase the Yawning Gaps between chemical engineers and theology lecturers, between first rate classicists and lower-rated post-modern poets. Dump these ludicrously over-paid vice-chancellors with their tied houses and expense accounts. Disestablish the universities. There is no need for a national system as such, especially when, really as we all know, it's a myth anyway with the exception of a national pay scheme, which will always be dangling over a Yawning Gap.

Jon Davies recently retired as Head of Religious Studies at Newcastle University. He is the author and editor of books on urban planning, contemporary social attitudes, and death in the ancient world; and is currently working on a book on the patterns of enmities surrounding the West.

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May I also suggest that the students themselves, and the courses that they study, be subject to the same market forces that you suggest should inform the appointment of lecturers? If anyone can find a use for a graduate in medieaval history, they should be prepared to pay the cost of producing one; in the absence of such a consumer of an expensive resource, the resource need not be produced at all.

Posted by: The Weasel Bearder at May 24, 2006 09:57 AM

I see that the universities and the lecturers have now come to an agreement and the industrial action is off - suppose that means that students will have to start revising at double speed for their exams.

Posted by: David at June 8, 2006 03:25 PM
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