Fourteen years later, I took leave of absence to return to the UK as to teach economics at Queen Mary & Westfield College (QMW) at the University of London. The move was motivated by family circumstances (my parents and in-laws are elderly), but my wife and I were soon wondering how long we could afford to work in the UK on current rates of pay.
Despite reputedly being one of the highest-paid staff at QMW, my gross UK salary is approximately 40 per cent of what it was at Michigan State. International comparisons are always difficult, and these calculations depend on cost-of-living adjustments. But the 40 per cent statistic looks even worse if I base the calculation on disposable income, or take into account fringe benefits such as the pension scheme and the private health care and disability insurance provided by most US universities. The US salary I am using in the calculations is based on a nine-month salary, and doesn't include income from grants or teaching summer schools. If I take all these into account, the UK remuneration is around 26 per cent.
The last 14 years have made me accustomed to the conditions of a respected professional. I detect a strong feeling in this country that academics are not worthy of these conditions. Someone finishing a PhD and obtaining their first job as an assistant professor in economics in the US earns about $60,000, plus two years' guaranteed summer money, bringing the annual package to about $73,300. This is approximately pounds 46,000, but is really pounds 60,000 or more, depending on cost-of-living adjustment. Compare this with a 26-year-old UK lecturer paid pounds 16,000 (the basic salary of a London bus driver). The lecturer would achieve pounds 26,000 (the salary of a London underground driver) after eight years' service. As this section has reported, only six students with firsts are taking economics PhDs in the UK's leading economics departments. A recently advertised set of lectureships in economics at QMW attracted 106 applicants, of whom only 10 were from the UK. The greatest pool of applicants was from other European countries, including 26 from Italy and 9 from Greece, while 19 applicants were from Asia. Similar ratios are reflected in the composition of most UK economics departments. It's increasingly rare to find a British academic economist under 35. In the QMW economics department only one of the 12 lecturers is from the UK.
While a whole generation of British academics is being lost to the profession, universities are largely able to survive by recruiting academics from abroad. But the quality and pay of other university systems, such as Spain's, are rapidly improving relative to Britain's.
The supply of foreign academics wanting to work in the UK may well dry up in the next few years and leave Britain completely exposed.
The last 25 years have provided abundant evidence of an unwillingness in the UK to fund and administer higher education. A system where universities are given more autonomy and are probably privatised and subject to market forces, seems the only solution. Such a system will imply varying academic salaries across subject and university.
The writer is Professor of Economics and Finance at Michigan State University, and Professor of Economics at Queen Mary & Westfield College, University of London