Are we all in it together?

Ferdinand von Prondzynski has published a piece in today’s Irish Times about the question of academic pay.  This is supposed to be a matter of concern because we live in an era where all those who do not provide a clear economic benefit to the state must be called before the tribunal of the market.  Never mind what other benefits they might provide (Enlightenment, say, to use an out-of-fashion word), if it isn’t cost-effective it shan’t exist.  You can see why academics would be first in line for the firing squad in such a dispensation.

Anyway, Ferdinand’s piece is typical of virtually everything that makes its way into the press about such matters these days, in that it contains misleading statistics that, whether by design or not, outrage the general public and it conflates two different classes of people working in universities: management and academics.  Here’s a cross post of what I posted in response to him on his blog:

1) Comparing like with like: If you are simply comparing Irish and UK or German salaries and not taking into account purchasing power parities, you’re simply not comparing like with like. For one thing, the comparison will shift, sometimes wildly, when the exchange rates shift without anyone’s pay having changed. If you compare Irish and US salaries now (with the euro at $1.30 or so), Irish salaries look OK. If you were making the comparison soon after the launch of the euro, when it was worth about $0.80, Irish salaries wouldn’t look so great. Purchasing power parities take account of this as well as the cost of living. There is no such thing as “highly paid” or “low paid” unless and until one specifies the cost of living. I was recruited to UCD from abroad. The number itself meant nothing to me absent information about the cost of living. My salary now sounds impressive to US colleagues. But the fact is, I could have a similar standard of living in most places in the US on roughly half my salary (and I could afford to buy a home, which I still can’t do here).

Any discussion about whether or not academics are paid too much or too little that doesn’t take these things into account will be misleading at best.

2) Who is overpaid?: The main issue raised by the C&AG’s report, on my reading of it, is not the pay of academics. It is the pay of management. The vast majority of the money paid out in off-the-scales payments and allowances in my university was paid to those in management positions. Because of the 1950s-style (if it’s not Louis XIV-style) hierarchical bureaucratic organization of UCD, I must include as “management” all those Heads of School, Directors of institutes, et alia. who have been chosen by the Sun King and his “management team.”

This crucial distinction–between university management and those they hope to “manage”–has been entirely lost in this debate, yet the report couldn’t be clearer. It is management that has squandered resources and paid itself handsomely for doing so. At roughly the same time that the Registrar and the Bursar of UCD were paying themselves €21,300 and €47,100 respectively over the sanctioned rates for their positions we received the following in a memo from the Registrar and Bursar:

Hospitality costs should be reduced and should not at any time be excessive or extravagant. The provision of tea, coffee, biscuits etc. should be discouraged and reduced. Any unnecessary costs incurred in the provision of water dispensers should be reviewed and discontinued where possible.

Do you think the annual budget for tea and biscuits for this university amounted to anything like what the Registrar and Bursar overpaid themselves per annum?

The guilty parties run this university as though it were a corporation. But when caught, then all staff are “collegially” lumped back together as if the problem were university-wide. It’s not. Your article, along with this sort of coverage contributes to just this sort of conflation.

Speaking of this conflation, Section 4.7 of the C&AG’s report has this reported justification from President Hugh Brady to justify the off-the-scales salaries of UCD management:

The President noted that universities including UCD compete for a highly mobile international talent pool and are recognised as key drivers of economic development. He stated that Ireland would not be able to compete successfully for jobs if its universities were not competitive with international universities.

This is laughable on its face. Yes, universities do have to compete for a highly mobile international talent pool of academics. Do they have to compete for a highly mobile international talent pool of managers? Surely not. How else to explain that virtually nobody in UCD management has been recruited internationally and virtually nobody has left UCD management for greener pastures. In fact, far from having been recruited from abroad or even from some other university in Ireland, almost everyone in UCD management has been recruited from Belfield itself.

And before you scold me: yes, I know that UCD is not all universities. It is, however, the worst offender according to the C&AG’s report.

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6 Responses to Are we all in it together?

  1. Hm, Ernie – I’m afraid I think you do me a little injustice. Wasn’t my whole point that the comments on bonuses are not relevant to the bulk of academic staff?

    • True but large salaries and bonuses overshadow all. It is certain that each time modest university salaries are mentioned, it will be countered by an instance of high pay.

      Incidentally, I’m often intrigued by the extent to which talk goes ahead as if all university staff consisted of academics. Even talk of management seems confined to academics or former academics who are managers.

    • Ernie Ball says:

      I’m not so sure, Ferdinand. Why is the entire thrust of your article about whether academics are overpaid when the report that occasioned the article says relatively little about that and says quite a bit about management overpaying itself? Sure you’ve got a couple of lines, which I applaud, about university Presidents at the end, but surely that’s the story itself and not a footnote to the story. Very few academics, in their capacity as academics, make anything over and above their salary. Yet it seems that quite a few “managers” have given themselves quite substantial allowances and other perks over and above their salaries. This distinction–between management and academics–isn’t drawn at all in your article.

      It is of course also worth pointing out that the academic staff and the students are the university. They do the research and they do the teaching and learning which are the principal reasons for the existence of universities. The management are there to serve the academic staff. A university with no management is still a university. A university with no academics is nothing. It would be nice to see some acknowledgement of this

      • A university without management and admininistration is a crowd of people wandering about a large campus. A university without an electrician is dark. A university without a plumber is a pond. A university without a librarian is …

        • Ernie Ball says:

          Ah, no. Universities did quite well without professional administration for quite a long time. In any case, my point was simply that, contrary to what many have been led to believe, management is meant to serve the academics. It is not the other way around.

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