Staffing Matters

How good are Universities as places of employment? The THE ran a couple of stories last week, headed ‘higher education staffing’, looking at the age distribution of academic staff, and the gender pay gap. I don’t think either of these stories are particularly new for this year, but they are a constant, depressing reminder, that as a sector we don’t appear always to value individuals as we should. The stories arose from the publication of HEFCE’s Annual Report on Staff employed at Hefce-funded HEI’s.

The report shows that the proportion of academics over the age of 60 has increased from 5 to 9% in the years since 1995, and the older staff are especially concentrated in humanities, languages and social, political and economic studies – so less of a problem for scientists apparently (maybe we burn out earlier). As things stand, this drift in age (there are now only 8% of academic staff under 30 compared with 14% in 1995) is only likely to get worse with the removal of a default retiring age. Most universities have simply accepted this position; in the future academics can choose when to retire past 65 and, if US universities are a guide, a significant number will choose to work on well into their 70s (according to a 2006 report, for instance, at Harvard there were more tenured faculty over 70 than under 40). This is not going to improve the situation for those up and coming youngsters, the postdocs  and research fellows seeking to step up into permanent faculty positions, whose fate has featured previously on these pages (here and here, for instance)  as well as those of OT blogger Jenny Rohn (here and here).

My own university saw these problems looming. We looked at the turnover for different grades of staff: academic, academic-related and support staff. What was very clear was that we had less turnover of academics than many HEIs, with around 50% of all new academic openings arising from retirement. These statistics meant, if we just accepted the removal of the default retirement age (which anyhow is 67 for academics at Cambridge), we would have even more limited opportunity for recruiting new blood and, as a secondary point, this would also make it even harder to improve the gender distribution amongst our academics. So, we argued the case – through a vote – to maintain an Employment Justified Retirement Age for academics, although not for other grades of staff where turnover was not an issue. (I say ‘we’ because, through my role on University Council and as the Gender Equality Champion, I was quite active in producing the arguments in favour of this action, as can be seen in the flysheets we produced.) It wasn’t obvious the majority of academics would vote in favour of limiting their own tenure, but they did by a very sizeable majority (greater than 4:1 of those voting). So, we are one of the few universities that have actively sought to do something about the ‘greying’ of the academic workforce (Oxford has also introduced an Employer Justified Default Retirement Age) and, although my own retirement seems to be approaching remarkably fast, I am proud that we have taken that stand for intergenerational justice. It would be nice to think other universities would wake up and do something similar to counter the ageing population the HEFCE report identifies.

The second story the THE ran looked at the gender pay gap, which showed that at the very least the pay gap for permanent academic staff has not diminished over the past 7 years; the raw numbers show that it has increased from £5,690 to £6,680 but I don’t have enough numbers at my finger tips to know what that means after adjustment for inflation.  Here the sciences do do very badly, with a differential of more than £8,000 in physical sciences and maths. The size of this gap probably in large part reflects the fact that there are so few women professors in these subjects so we shouldn’t be very surprised. However, the lead on the story was the anxiety expressed by Geraldine Healy from QMUL (which is having its own problems about gender issues, with criticism of ‘clear gender discrimination’ arising from a metrics exercise to see who should be made redundant in the School of Biological and Chemical Sciences, according to Rachel Ashworth from the School) about the lack of transparency surrounding pay in academia. She called for academics to be able to see what their colleagues earn.

Now, it is not the case in my University that individuals can see exactly how much Professor W or Dr J is being paid, but we do at least publish an Equal Pay Review , something that doesn’t seem to be common in universities, particularly those in the Russell Group. So we can see the mean value in each grade, and the differences by gender. Because we have the data – and publish it – we can start to act on obvious shortcomings if they show up. I chair the committee (the so-called Gender Equality Group or GEG) set up by Council to oversee the findings and to make recommendations. In fact, what we have seen so far is that there is a massive pay differential if you simply look at the average pay across the university which is, if you like, the headline figure, but this for the unremarkable reason that there is grade segregation: women are more likely to be found in the lowest grades (cleaners etc) and men in the professoriat. This is hardly ideal, but we know what the problem is and, as the first part of this post illustrates, we are mindful of it and are doing what we can to increase the number of women in the academic grades (doing far more, I should add, than simply sticking with a default retirement age). We still fall far short of where we’d like to be, but it’s a start. What we would be much more concerned about would be if there were significant differences within grades. In fact, aside from at the most senior professorial levels,  where we, just as almost every other UK university, have problems because of the lack of senior female professors, the pay gap is rather small. Not zero, but small and tending to diminish over the years.

So, whereas the THE bad news stories represent a bad state of play across the sector, I feel Cambridge is doing better, and actively pushing to do better yet, than many other institutions. Add in the fact that we are the highest ranking HEI on the Stonewall Workplace Equality Index  and that we won this year’s Employee Inclusion Award  from the Employers Network for Equality and Inclusion and it can be seen we do believe ‘Staffing Matters’ and that we are striving to improve. There’s a long way to go, but there is a will here that makes it a pleasure to be part of the effort. Not before I retire (at 67 of course) will we see the gender pay gap vanish, I fear, but we will be monitoring it; nor do I expect to see the professoriat suddenly become 50% women, but again, we’re on the case and monitoring it. I do at least feel discrimination of the kind alleged at QMUL is unlikely to feature, although unconscious bias undoubtedly persists here as elsewhere.

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3 Responses to Staffing Matters

  1. Chris Satterley says:

    Hi Athene,

    Very good article, I often read your blog but this is my first comment because it is something I feel quite strongly about.

    Firstly my background: I am a male, white, grammar-school educated individual who got up to post-doc level before leaving the academic pathway to join industry. There you go, so everyone is clear where I am coming from…

    Having had some experience both in academic and private sector employment I really feel universities are a long, long way behind industry in terms of how they treat they staff and, more importantly, how they train and lead their staff. I am constantly amazed at the low level of expectation placed on academics to demonstrate personal development beyond research output and the size of the grants. It seems that most attempts to do this are so half-hearted that they only inspire ridicule and not genuine effort from academics to develop as leaders.

    It seems obvious to me that may problems in this area are due to the fact that academics are not given the support and training needed to become effective managers. By effective I don’t just mean people who get in the cash and churn out the papers, I mean people who develop a successful team and progress those under them on to greater things. So academics are naturally good at this, but many aren’t and either fail or adopt quite unethical management styles that clearly contribute to the problems such as gender inequality in academic science.

    I think academics have to accept that they are managers (amongst many other things) and that university leaders need to have that expect of their academic staff and ensure budgets are in place to ensure a high standard of performance. Academia is no different from any other career in that respect in that your success is really tied in to how you are managed – if your manager makes you unhappy, you won’t be successful and you won’t want to hang around.

  2. Laurence Cox says:

    Can you explain the Employer Justified Default Retirement Age a little more please? I looked at the link to the Oxford scheme and it seems like the University can just say goodbye, here is your pension, please clear your office so we can bring in someone younger. I assume that it isn’t as harsh as that, and that you have a scheme for those over the new retirement age who still want to be associated with the University and still have something to contribute.

    • I can’t comment on Oxford, but in Cambridge we have always had a scheme whereby people can apply to stay on post-retirement. And retirement doesn’t necessarily mean clear the office and never return anyhow ( although you may be expected to move to a smaller one or share it).

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