David Kernohan is Deputy Editor of Wonkhe

How much do academics get paid?

The HESA Staff data collection includes the exact pro-rata salary of each member of academic staff in the UK.

However, this isn’t what HESA publishes. Instead we get the number (headcount) of staff on academic contracts in one of six bands at provider or subject (cost centre) level – and if you’ve ever tried to compare them year on year you will be aware that the definitions of these bands are updated for every year of data.

Inches by JNCHES

What HESA publishes is actually based on New JNCHES spine points – and the annual uprating is based on the outcomes of those negotiations between the five campus unions and the University and Colleges Employers Association (UCEA). As not all academic staff are on New JNCHES related contracts (or have location or personal uplifts to a nominal salary based on New JNCHES) HESA maps these back into the appropriate band to offer a representative sector-wide picture.

This picture, therefore, has very little to do with actual take home pay. A member of staff on a fractional contract at spine point 31 and a full-time academic at spine point 39 are shown in the same band, along with someone on spine point 28 who has a personal uplift that brings them up to the equivalent of spine point 32. Factor in the size of these bands and it is clear that this is not the intention of this publication.

Instead – see it as a survey the value placed on academic work across providers or subject areas. Something very interesting in itself.

For instance, if you worked a National Living Wage (the old government minimum wage, currently £11.40 an hour) job in 2023 – a 35 hour week, full-time, contract with paid holiday (so £11.40 times 35 hours per week times 52 weeks)- you’d be on a pre-tax salary of £20,749. In New JNCHES terms, that’s just under spine point 5 – but everything below spine point 10 (£22,214) is crammed pretty close together. The living wage foundation Real Living Wage outside of London is £21,840 – between points 6 and 7.

The median annual full-time salary in the UK for 2023 was £34,963 – just under spine point 28.

Low pay in academia

There are about 13,930 members of academic staff on contracts below spine point 30 (so, around or below the national median wage for last year) – representing just under 9 per cent of academic staff. Of these a maximum of 50 are on contracts below spine point 10 (around or below the government’s National Living Wage).

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We need to caveat this a little bit – recall, as above, these are people on contracts linked to a full-time pre-tax salary at these rates. And the way HESA rounds to the nearest 5 (0,1,2 round to zero – 3,4,5 round to 5) makes it very difficult to talk about small numbers with confidence.

Got that? Right, let’s find out where these (up to) 50 people might work. I’ve added in spine points 11 to 20 (below £27,131) in pale pink.

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So, according to the official stats, there’s up to 35 at the University of Central Lancashire at spine point 3-10, plus five each at Hartpury, Sunderland, and University College Birmingham.

I’m sure all of these providers are addressing these issues and it its likely that there are far less staff on these low grades in the sector now. I did specifically ask UCLAN about this, and was told:

There has been a minor error in our submitted data and we are working with HESA to rectify this situation. We pride ourselves on paying our academic staff at the correct grades and spinal points.

What about subject areas? On this count there are up to 40 academics below grade 10 (remember, the rounding is going to make for some suppression here). There’s five each in art and design, biosciences, nursing and allied health, performing arts, business, media, agriculture, and general academic services.

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As a point of interest, these are split fairly evenly between teaching only and teaching plus research contracts. These are not research assistants on low pay.

You’ll not read many words of praise about the contested pay settlement that was implemented by most New JNCHES providers against the opposition of unions. In a time of rapid inflation the majority of academics saw a real-terms pay cut. But what the uplift did do was lift the salaries of this small number of very low paid academic staff hugely – those on points 3 to 5 (below the 2023 National Living Wage and current Real Living Wage) saw an 8 per cent uplift, where as those on points 5 to 15 (so most shown on the charts above) had an uplift of 7 per cent.

That’s encouraging. As are the steps that are being taken by universities and colleges to ensure that all staff (including academics – most people on these low paid contracts will be academic-related staff performing other valuable roles) are on a fair rate of pay that reflects their expertise and hard work. But plotting this 2022-23 data has been a salutary lesson for anyone who thought low-value contracts were a thing of the past.

Additional data

Here’s some more detailed charts by subject (cost centre):

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3 responses to “Academic staff on low-value contracts

  1. Interesting numbers, my University seems to penalise Research Academic’s, yet claims to be a ‘Research University’, I suspect that’s a national issue, as most University Councils are more concerned with ‘bums on seats’ (http://cynicalbastards.com/ubs/) and income generation than retaining research talent.

  2. Associate Lecturers are ripped off especially as they’re doing the majority of teaching. For years they were on 0 hour contracts, they changed this recently to 5 hours guaranteed per annum. Management is proudly saying that they have a permanent contract. When they use ALs in term time (A and B), they easily have 25 hours contact teaching time. The rest of the year, they are left to survive. Very concerning.

    1. Some, like one I met at the University of Winchester, have multiple ‘gig’s’ in different Universities just to make ends meet, not a situation one can survive doing for long.
      In some subject areas it’s the Technical staff who carry to bulk of ‘teaching’ responsibilities, often offloaded onto them by the ‘teaching’ Academics, however even if the Technician holds a teaching qualification they cannot claim to ‘teach’, so they cannot use that work to improve their JD & CV to get better pay.

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