by Robyn Banks

Throughout the summer the debate around vice chancellor pay has continued to play out. Government and media figures have joined students in their long standing expression of outrage at absurd rates of pay, whilst the VCs themselves have come out to defended their salaries, some with a remarkable lack of self-awareness. Oxford VC Louise Richardson recently joined the fray with this startlingly uncaring remark: “My own salary is £350,000. That’s a very high salary compared to our academics who I think are, junior academics especially, very lowly paid.”

She raises the flip side of this issue: how little academic staff are paid in comparison to their top bosses. Whilst it varies from university to university, the average academic wage is around 10% of Richardson’s pay and 5% of that of Southampton University’s VC, a vast discrepancy. Researchers are well aware of the insufficiency of their pay:

“I’m at the top of my game, yet I can’t really afford a pint. How then could I possibly afford to put a deposit on a house? Or to start a family? Realistically, how can I stick it out in academia?”

This shows the problem in real terms. When researchers’ pay is at a level that denies them a comfortable standard of living, the likelihood of anyone being able to sustain a career in academia further then finishing their PhD, let alone becoming a lecturer or professor, is mighty slim.

The knock on effect of this is that those who manage to survive on the wages of a university researcher are more likely than not to come from more privileged backgrounds. Research by HESA in 2015 found that less than a quarter of UK professors were women, and just 11% of employed academics came from BAME backgrounds. In an ever-more diverse country, the vast majority of lecturers and researchers are still white, middle-to-upper class men, and as much as they may mean well and be highly skilled in their fields, this inevitably creates a narrower view of the world than a more diverse academia would.

Now that the issue is on the table, we need to help give voice to these struggles

This level of disparity is symptomatic of a system which is completely broken. The figures show that upper academia is still a place for those from a certain section of society, and it will remain a huge struggle for anyone to try and break down those barriers while the pay on offer is so low.

Richardson’s attempts to justify her salary show that she is completely out of touch with those who work further down the chain from her. But we should be paying less attention to those at the top with their ridiculous pay grades, and more to those who are just scraping by while doing crucial work for their institutions. Now that the issue is on the table, we need to help give voice to these struggles, that we may finally see the changes that would open the higher positions in institutions to those that have previously been pushed out.

Featured image credit: kstuttard

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