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January 05, 2010

Farthing wise, pound foolish: Brendan Simms argues that universities would do better cutting academic salaries - especially those of Vice-Chancellors - than closing excellent departments

Posted by Brendan Simms

Brendan Simms argues that if universities have to make drastic savings they should rather start by cutting academic salaries - especially those of highly paid Vice-Chancellors - than by closing down excellent departments.

A Cambridge colleague of mine used to carry around in his wallet a little table, which showed the relative decline of academic salaries against civil servants, doctors, lawyers and other professionals since the 1960s. That was in the 1990s, and the gulf has only deepened since then. It is reflected in the kinds of houses in which Cambridge dons live: until the 1970s they used to inhabit the larger Victorian semi-detached; in the 1980s and 1990s they began to gravitate towards the artisanal terraces; and today they often need extensive support from colleges, over and above their regular salary, to buy anything at all.

Oxbridge dons are the lucky ones, moreover: most academics in universities across Britain don't have these additional benefits to fall back on. The situation in the capital (even with the London weighting) is probably worst of all, as lecturers struggle pay for housing and transport.

To make matters worse, this end-state comes for the lucky ones after they have passed through a long period of training and apprenticeship - which is becoming progressively longer. After their first degree, prospective academics have to undertake graduate work in pursuit of a doctorate which usually lasts four years or so. Most of them then spend at least another four years doing very low paid work as research fellows or temporary lecturers. They are now generally in their early thirties before they have a permanent position and a steady salary, albeit a modest one.

What has made all this endurable for British academics is two things. First, the very high level of job satisfaction: dons enjoy the privilege of being paid to indulge their intellectual curiosity; and - at least at many universities - they have the opportunity to interact with highly intelligent students.

Secondly, even though remuneration may be low, the working conditions are generally good. Academics enjoy an exceptionally flexible timetable; subsidised childcare is often available; and by comparison with many jobs in the "real" world, the tone and atmosphere is usually collegial. Above all, for the past twenty-five years academics have had more or less unchallenged job security, something which many began to appreciate all the more with the onset of the recession last year.

Or at least, they did. In a statement which has sent shivers down the spines of lecturers across Britain, the University of Sussex announced before Christmas that it is planning to save 5 million in 2010-2011 out of an annual turnover of 160 million, by reducing 100 posts out of 2300.

What was shocking was not so much the figures, as the intention to cut whole subject areas and courses, including - apparently - Early Modern History, because of reduced student "demand". By contrast, more would be invested in "growth" areas such as the School of Business, Management and Economics, Global Studies, and Media, Film and Music. Sussex's Vice Chancellor Professor Michael Farthing said:

I am confident that the steps we are proposing will help safeguard our future as one of the UKs top research universities.
This decision cannot reflect the quality of early modern history. In the last Research Assessment Exercise 2008, history at Sussex ranked number 16, a high score only five below Cambridge. It is not possible, unfortunately, for an outsider to disaggregate the Early Modernists from the overall grading, but since some 90% of the whole history faculty had to be rated as "world-leading, internationally excellent or internationally recognised" in order to achieve the RAE result, this must have included either all or the vast majority of the Early Modernists. There can be no suggestion, therefore, that the early modernists are being singled-out because of any intellectual weaknesses. That would have been surprising, because Sussex has been a powerhouse for the subject in the past, when it was home to William Lamont, a world expert on Puritanism, and Blair Worden, the celebrated historian of the Civil War.

Let us pause for a moment to consider what dropping "Early Modern History" actually means, even if it "just" means cutting European history. No Reformation, no Thirty Years War, no Louis XIV, and perhaps not even the French Revolution. In short, no sense why Englishmen were so worried by what was happening on the other side of the channel (a very pertinent issue in Sussex especially, one might add). If the axe is to fall on Early Modern History across the board, what about the Tudors and Stuarts?

Bear in mind also, that one of the research themes currently highlighted by the University is "heritage". So no Armada or Guy Fawkes then? No Puritans sailing to America? In a managerial culture which prides itself on "joined-up thinking", it is clear that somebody has not been paying attention.

Sussex may be an extreme case, for now, but it is hardly an isolated one. The list of cut or closing departments is a depressing one: politics and philosophy at Liverpool, chemistry at Kent, physics and theology at Newcastle, chemistry at Queen Mary, to name but a few. There might be something to be said for a healthy competition in which the decline of "weak" departments was matched by the rise of "strong" rivals. It doesn't seem to work that way, however.

The vast majority of the new courses being offered at universities are "soft" subjects such as "media studies"; over the past decade the number of media studies academics has more than doubled. This trend has been encouraged by the Labour government's - in principle laudable - ambition to have 50% of young people in higher education without - inexcusably - providing the funding to make this possible without lowering standards. Subjects being cut are the "hard" ones: chemistry, physics and especially languages. One does not have to be an inveterate cultural pessimist to fear where all this will lead.

To be sure, universities face a horrific deficit, and they have to do something. Rather than running down intellectual and professional capacity which will take years to rebuild, however, they should try to spread the burden more evenly, perhaps by enacting a pay cut across the board. In Ireland, for example, where the fiscal situation is even worse, the government has simply imposed pay cuts of up to fifteen percent for the public sector. Irish academics have accepted this with comparatively few grumbles, because they know that the alternative would be job losses for their colleagues. This strategy would be costly for Professor Farthing, whose salary has just risen to 277,000 a year, but it would be an opportunity for him to lead from the front.

Otherwise, we can only hope that other British universities follow the Irish rather than the Sussex example. To do anything else might be Farthing-wise, but pound-foolish.

The author thanks Miss Katie Jenner for research carried out in support of this piece.

Dr Brendan Simms is Professor in the History of International Relations at the Centre of International Studies at the University of Cambridge and co-President of the Henry Jackson Society.


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I agree, but it seems that the idea of financial restraint, other than sackings, is regarded as unthinkable nowadays. In fact "collegiality" no longer means anything either as far as I can see.

Posted by: pedant2007 at January 19, 2010 01:30 AM
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