News Analysis: The Wages of Fear


Following the recent report detailing the annual income of academic staff, Amy Bracken questions whether these salaries are justified

At the start of the semester, UCD was absorbing the news that a university with debts of well in excess of €10 million was under fire from the Public Accounts Committee for having paid illegal, unauthorised bonuses to staff amounting to within the region of €1.6 million.

Last week, a report in The Irish Times announced that UCD’s academic staff are among the highest paid in the country, and that is aside from the bonus payments announced in September.

Five out of the ten highest paid academics in Ireland are UCD staff, the report, which was compiled by Peter McGuire, claimed. This comes amidst an uncertain economic climate and at a time when students are faced with the threat of a higher registration fee and/or the reintroduction of third-level fees.

UCD President Dr Hugh Brady is described in the report as: “One of the most prominent and controversial figures in Irish education.” It continues: “Brady has brought about sweeping changes at Ireland’s largest university […] Credited with moving UCD swiftly up the world ranking. After languishing in 221st place, it is now in the world’s top 100 in the Times Higher ranking.”

Yet Dr Brady’s profile does not exclude the issues he is currently facing with the Public Accounts Committee. University rankings seem irrelevant in a time when UCD can barely afford to educate the students it has without causing them constant upset and anxiety in relation to finances.

Among the UCD academics mentioned in the report, the award for the highest-paid member in Irish academia goes to Professor Desmond
Fitzgerald, UCD’s Vice-President for Research. Professor Fitzgerald has actually seen his salary fall by around €150,000 in the past year, to just over €250,000 per annum, and he is credited with increasing UCD’s research income threefold.

Yet the report cites critics, who say that despite the inevitable aid which Professor Fitzgerald has provided for UCD’s financial stakes, the university still has debts in the region of €12 million. Thus, a salary as high as Professor Fitzgerald’s is rightly described as “inadequate”.

Another issue raised in the report is the question of whether or not to cap academic salaries at €100,000 per annum. Academics point out that they have already taken major pay cuts, and in terms of their previous salaries, this can hardly be denied.

However, the Central Statistics Office told The University Observer that the average weekly income in the public sector in 2010 was just under €905. This means that the majority of public sector workers are earning in the region of €47,000 per annum.

The report also brings into question the number of hours academic staff actually spend educating students. In September, the Dáil Public Accounts Committee announced that some academics are working less than 15 hours per week. If the majority of public sector workers working a standard nine-to-five job earn less than €50,000 per annum, why is it that academics can earn from twice that amount to over five times that amount? How can that be justified?

Universities claim that in order to provide a high level of education, they need to pay high salaries to attract a high calibre of staff. Surely professors and lecturers with expertise in a certain field would be happy to dedicate a substantial amount of hours to imparting their knowledge? A 15-hour per week contract is hardly worth the paper it’s written on, especially where high salaries are concerned.

Academics should choose to dedicate themselves either to further study or to teaching – not both – unless they are willing to commit more hours to teaching. By implement such a scheme, their off-the-chart salaries would at least contain a vestige of credibility.

Additionally, in the case of the Principal of the College of Engineering, Mathematical and Physical Sciences, Professor Nick Quirke, the report says that his salary of €227, 659 was sanctioned by the HEA under a special framework agreement, designed to help colleges attract top academics from Ireland and abroad.

While Professor Quirke’s prolific authorship confirms his impressive credentials, the appointment raises the question of the need to source academic staff abroad when there are so many students retuning to college to complete doctorates and therefore carry the same research qualifications as many of the international staff. Perhaps it is time UCD started acknowledging the severe deficits it is facing and began employing local academics at a reasonable rate.

The current times are grave and it would beneficial for UCD to receive some good press on the national scale instead of constantly being subjected to controversial reports such as this one.