Underpaid Academics and the Damaging Consequences for the Quality of UK Higher Education

In the latest of a series of interviews from the Royal Economic Society Conference 2007, Romesh Vaitilingam talks to James Walker about the pay of UK academics.

Academics are underpaid and overworked compared with other graduate professions and this is likely to have consequences for the quality of UK degrees. That is the conclusion of new research by James Walker and colleagues, presented to the Royal Economic Society’s 2007 annual conference at the University of Warwick.

The study finds that:

  • Not only do academics work longer hours than the average graduate, but they also earn around 3% less.
  • In terms of their earnings, academics compare particularly poorly with accountants, those in the legal professions, consultants, engineers, physicians, pharmacists and dental practitioners (across both the public and private sectors).
  • On average, academics earn approximately 17% less than other similarly qualified individuals in the accountancy profession, 23% less than lawyers, 24% less than doctors and 49% less than dentists.
  • Only two groups of workers do worse than academics: teachers in further education and, to a lesser extent, secondary school teachers.
  • Academic pay is an important policy issue because if the relative pay of academics falls, it is likely to lead to lower quality individuals entering and remaining in the profession, as well as a brain drain to countries that reward academics more highly.
  • These trends are in turn likely to have a knock-on effect on the quality of UK higher education.

Higher education is of crucial importance to the UK economy. The sector is estimated to be worth £45 billion. It is also becoming a global business with current export earnings of about £3.6 billion. The sector is playing a key role in achieving the government aspiration for a high skill strategy to transform the UK into a knowledge economy, as reflected in the target of 50% participation in higher education by the end of the decade. Maintaining the quality of the sector is vital for preserving its high international status and for producing high quality skilled labour for the economy.

Economic theory would suggest that if academic pay falls, relative to other similar professions, the calibre of individuals entering and remaining in the profession is likely to fall. But robust analysis of relative academic pay in the UK has been limited.

James Walker and his colleagues have analysed the size of the gap in hourly earnings between academics and graduates in a range of other comparable occupations. The study identifies the gap in hourly earnings between different occupations after taking account of a range of other differences in the characteristics of individuals who go into different professions, such as their gender, ethnicity and of course their education level.

The study concludes that after taking account of these other factors, academics still earn somewhat lower earnings than most public sector and private sector graduates and that they do particularly poorly compared with a range of comparable professions.

Of the other graduate professions considered by the authors, dentists are the best paid followed by doctors, lawyers, accountants, legal professionals, accountants, pharmacists and pharmacologists, consultants and engineers; all of whom earn considerably more then the average graduate. Indeed, of the ten groups examined, it is only the three education professions  academics, teachers in further education and secondary school teachers who are paid less then the average UK graduate.

Not only are academics relatively lowly paid compared with other professions but they also work longer hours then other graduates. While the average graduate worked around 44 hours per week in 2004, academics worked 47 hours per week. Indeed, with the exception of doctors who worked around 51 hours per week in 2004, academics work longer hours than the other ten professions.

The study was not able to consider the non-pecuniary benefits from working as an academic, such as the ability to do flexible working hours or have greater intrinsic interest in the work. Further research is needed to determine whether these non-pecuniary benefits are likely to compensate for lower wages.

The results from the study suggest that policy-makers should be concerned about the relative low pay of academics. As pay in the higher education sector is largely not determined by a free labour market, there is a risk that relative wages for academics may decline further and thereby reduce the quality of the workforce in higher education.

Notes for editors: Higher Education Academic Salaries in the UK by James Walker, Anna Vignoles and Mark Collins was presented at the Royal Economic Society’s 2007 annual conference at the University of Warwick, 11-13 April.

James Walker is at the University of Reading Business School; Anna Vignoles is at the Institute of Education.

For further information: contact Romesh Vaitilingam on 07768-661095 (email: romesh@compuserve.com).

Find more Internet resources on the issue of the economics of education at Intute: Social Sciences.

2 Responses to “Underpaid Academics and the Damaging Consequences for the Quality of UK Higher Education”

  1. Diana Says:


    I agree that academics is a less paid job when compared to other graduate jobs, but academic institutions still offer a good job http://www.topemployers.co.uk/sectors/Academic-Institutions.html
    Yes, academics does need concern from Govt and other authorities and the salary should raise in this sector. It is a step back that the latest oxbridge survey report revealed the popular sector among the oxbridge students and Academics was not picked by any. You can see details here: http://www.topemployers.co.uk/oxbridge-students-graduate-jobs-survey-08-page4.html

  2. Capitalism : a love story « Franglaisreviews' Blog Says:

    […] travesties such as this. I equally hate the fact that eminently useful careers such as nursing and teaching are generally paid a relative pittance, whilst an expertise in juggling financial portfolios can […]

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