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Why do we undervalue junior academics by paying them so little?

Not one to miss a passing bandwagon, Universities Minister Jo Johnson was quick to make hay out of the controversy over vice-chancellors’ gold plated salaries in early September. Their soaring pay is a “real embarrassment for our higher education sector”, according to Johnson, justifying new plans which will see universities required to publish details of all senior staff earning over £100,000 per-year, and fined if they fail to justify salaries above £150,000.

Stricter regulation of wasteful spending by universities would certainly be welcome, especially as annual tuition fees are raised to £9,250, whilst interest rates are increasing from 4.6 to 6.1 percent this Michaelmas. Nonetheless, the minister’s outrage seems to disguise a far more serious embarrassment lurking within the Department of Education. For every overpaid university official, there are many more academics labouring on low paid and insecure contracts.

“I earn just over £6,000 a year”, Dr Steve Hanson told the Guardian in November 2016. He is a part-time lecturer in political sociology. “We are seasonal labourers, like fruit pickers. You have to email every September, cap in hand, saying: ‘Is there any work for me this year?’”

The face of academia is often that of the wealthy, whether it’s a vice-chancellor or a celebrity expert with a book deal and a documentary series on the BBC. In Oxford especially, our expectations about academic pay are conditioned by the gilded environment in which we are surrounded. Meanwhile, there is a startling ignorance of the treatment of academics on the junior rungs of the ladder.

An extensive report by the UCU in May 2015 revealed that 42 percent of staff on casual contracts in universities and colleges have struggled to pay household bills.

Dr Hanson’s case is not unusual. Last year, the University and College Union (UCU) analysed data from the Higher Education Statistics Agency and found that 53 percent of UK academics are on insecure fixed-term contracts. The situation is even worse at research-intensive Russell Group universities, where 59 percent of academics are on these fixed-term contracts.

This has a real impact on the day-to-day lives of junior academics. An extensive report by the UCU in May 2015 revealed that 42 percent of staff on casual contracts in universities and colleges have struggled to pay household bills. More than a third had experienced problems with getting a mortgage on account of their insecure contract, whilst one in five struggled to pay for food.

It is unlikely that conditions are much better in 2017. Some university staff have seen their pay fall in real terms by 15 percent since 2010. Writing in the Times Higher Education Supplement, Sally Hunt, the general secretary of the UCU, compared the university model of employment to what “one might expect to find in a Sports Direct warehouse”.

The outlook is particularly ugly in Oxford where our Vice-Chancellor, Louise Richardson, took fire for attempting to defend her £350,000 salary on the basis that attracting talent in a “global marketplace” is an expensive necessity. For all I know she could well be overpaid for what she does. But if social justice really is our rallying cry – rather than just knee-jerk envy – then where is the public outrage over the insecure, low-pay contracts to which our junior academics are subjected?

At the time of writing, Mansfield is advertising for a stipendiary lectureship in Politics, paid at £13,415 per annum. And it’s not just that the humanities are undervalued. Hertford iscurrently recruiting two or three stipendiary lecturers in Computer Science, for an annual salary of between £13,026 – £14,651 “depending on qualifications and experience”. To straddle the poverty line in the UK’s least affordable city, after spending eight years or more in higher education, is a scandal. To make matters worse, Oxford has the fourth highest rate of insecure contracts of any British university.

Richardson, to her credit, has at least acknowledged that she is paid “a very high salary compared to our academics – our junior academics especially, who are very lowly paid”. Yet in spite of this candour, there has been no visible movement to rectify the inequality she herself recognises. Although Louise Richardson and Jo Johnson are at loggerheads, it appears they are both prepared to ignore, or at least tolerate, the plight of junior staff.

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