Thursday, 5 February 2009

Gentlemen, Gentlemen

I was quite surprised the other day when I discovered how much a few professorial staff are being paid. I'm not sure how this works in other countries but, in the UK, public sector institutions like universities pay our salaries on clearly defined scales. If you know what scale someone is on, you can assume they earn somewhere between "not very much" and "not as much as you might think." Unless, that is, they are on the very top "scale" reserved for professors (proper UK ones, that is, not "professors") and top administrators, which has a lower but no upper limit. In which case, I discover, someone may be earning anywhere between "only twice as much as me" and "as much as that?"

For example, I hear that -- in another university -- a recently-appointed professor, aged under 40, working in the area of social sciences, is earning £90K, if my informant is to be believed. That's a lot of money. I also happen to know that -- in the same institution -- a recently-retired professor of long standing, also a social scientist, never earned more than £65K. And I learned last week that our own Vice-Chancellor's pay has increased by 22% since 2006 to £240K. That's an awful lot of money.* Especially when you consider that the scale for a full university lecturer is £29704 - £33432 (or up to a maximum of £38757 with "higher responsibilities").

Now, I don't want to get into this whole "market" argument over the relative value of different staff, because I think it's bullshit. Worse, it's the very same bullshit -- self-serving and smug -- that delivered us into the pretty financial mess we're currently mired in. I don't know anything about financial management, but I do know a little about academics. If these "top talents" are as skittish about money as we're constantly told, then I suggest we do the right thing and let them enrich themselves in the private sector, assuming they can find somewhere prepared to give them the time and the resources to carry out their research, and can live off the sales of their publications and consultancy fees. I think they'll be back. And perhaps with a refreshed understanding of that old-fashioned but important word, collegiality.

However, I do think it is a problem that we're still applying 19th century models to 21st century issues. Now, as my loyal readers will know, I am the proud descendant of a ragbag of agricultural labourers, straw plaiters, bookbinders, charwomen, soldiers, and at least one prostitute (have I not mentioned that yet?). As is most of the UK population. Others, however (and I share my life with one such) look back to prominent clergymen, Oxbridge dons, men and women of distinction in the arts, and -- crucially -- lives lived on private income. In the UK, social class is not just "the elephant in the room", it is the room.

And the thing about 19th century models is this: we still fund our universities as if they were staffed by a handful of vocational gentlefolk living on private incomes, with the leisure and choices and freedom of thought that unearned income guarantees (not to mention the time freed up by the liberal application of servants to domestic chores). But a 21st century mass education system has different demands: most academics don't have any private income, have very little leisure, and are not earning very much money. They are under pressure to deliver, deliver, deliver quantifiably "internationally excellent" results in both research and teaching on short-term timetables, but are being paid middle-management salaries, and given no time (other than the summer break) in which to do it. It's not a recipe for success.

We think of Charles Darwin, sat in Down House with his earthworms, simultaneously at leisure and as engaged as it is possible to be; or J.R.R. Tolkien, with enough time left over from his donnish duties at Oxford to write fat books about elves and orcs. But, no matter what people out there believe, there's nothing left of that privileged way of life other than its titles and ceremonies; and society is no longer getting the considered, carefully-researched, often long-withheld results slow time used to deliver, either. What remains is an under-resourced, semi-industrial process of mass higher education, in which neither giver nor receiver gets what they want.

The only salvation for individuals is to publish prematurely, to offer only popular courses which attract fee-paying overseas students, to distort their "research interests" to secure prestigious and profitable research grants, and finally -- if they're lucky -- to manoeuvre into the salary and bonus stratosphere, where it is rumoured something of the old freedoms may exist for a fortunate few. But the hope of big salaries will never buy anyone any slow time, or the attitudes that would enable them to use it once -- if -- they get it. It just means a very few profs can afford to join the Great and Good (those knights and dames who run our country as their hobby). But they will still never earn enough to play with the real aristocrats -- the entertainers, sportsmen and scam artists with enough personal wealth to fund a university single-handed, but whose abundant wealth and leisure is never regarded as a resource to improve the public good.

Talking of research grants, if I controlled the money, there is a very important research project which I would like to see done. It would involve finding out just how the artists and writers and philosophers we study as part of our national culture paid their bills. Where did their money come from? Where did it go? How much did it cost to be an A-list poet? Are there C-listers who could have made it the A-list, if only they had the income? What a very vulgar, shop-keeperish project, you sneer! But how interesting it would be ... Because it would tell a true story, one about how someone either inherits or earns the privilege to research, to read, to write, and still pay the gas bill, and how far the difficulty, ease or impossibility of that struggle has coloured our national self-image.

Perhaps in this neglected spot is laid
Some heart once pregnant with celestial fire;
Hands, that the rod of empire might have sway'd,
Or waked to ecstasy the living lyre:

But Knowledge to their eyes her ample page,
Rich with the spoils of time, did ne'er unroll;
Chill Penury repress'd their noble rage,
And froze the genial current of the soul.

Full many a gem of purest ray serene
The dark unfathom'd caves of ocean bear:
Full many a flower is born to blush unseen,
And waste its sweetness on the desert air.

Some village-Hampden, that with dauntless breast
The little tyrant of his fields withstood,
Some mute inglorious Milton here may rest,
Some Cromwell, guiltless of his country's blood.

Thomas Gray, Elegy Written in a Country Church-Yard, 1751

* Actually, an outrageous amount of money to pay a public servant in a publicly-funded institution which has hit the financial rocks on his watch. I suppose we should be grateful: how much worse might it have been, if we had been led by an individual prepared to do the job for as little as, say, £150K? It doesn't bear thinking about ...

No comments: