Your starter for 10: is £22,000 a year enough for teaching this lot?

University lecturers have had it. The rewards of academia are just not enough. Wendy Berliner reports on the new brain drain
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Throughout Britain a similar scene is being enacted in family homes everywhere as young adults head off to university.

Throughout Britain a similar scene is being enacted in family homes everywhere as young adults head off to university. Over the next couple of weeks, 1.8 million students will be flooding into the nation's higher education institutions to prepare for that degree which will guarantee most of them, at the very least, a decent standard of living for life. In the end, they will earn 76 per cent more on average than non-graduates once they are established in their careers.

Compare that with the lot of the academics who will be there to teach them when they arrive in the lecture halls. Despite an above-inflation pay package agreed between employers and unions earlier in the summer, a newly qualified lecturer still earns less than the £22,000 salary of an assistant lift and escalator operator employed by London Underground.

There are many who now think that there is a limit to how long highly qualified and very able people will put up with these kind of earnings, and that Britain is heading for the same recruitment crisis in its universities that it already has experienced in schools – a crisis which will threaten standards. Already it is very hard to recruit top-line economists, and there are shortages in IT-related subjects.

Andrew Oswald, professor of economics at Warwick University, says: "I think university pay is a disaster and we will destroy quality in the long run by not attracting our most talented graduates into academic life. We need a fundamental revaluation of pay if we are remotely to compete with the salaries offered by top jobs and the American universities. For economics, pay would have to be doubled or trebled. We can't get people with firsts any more. A newly minted lecturer at a top university in the US gets £40,000; a new economics lecturer gets £65,000. If the country wants world-class universities, that's what you have to pay."

By mid-career, a university lecturer in Britain earns around £32,250, less than a schoolteacher could after five years, and even star professors will be lucky to make as much as a young lawyer in a London firm. But a high intellect and years of extra study make the kind of people best qualified to be academics exceptionally attractive to all kinds of employers – most of whom pay more, some a great deal more. A typical City economist will earn five times what a typical economics lecturer will. Top banks and finance houses are now stuffed with people with PhDs.

Debt gathered during undergraduate courses is deterring young people who might previously have considered an academic career, and so is the difficulty in getting a job which isn't short term or just paid by the hour when you are starting out. These issues, coupled with impending retirements of the generation of academics recruited after the expansion of higher education in the late 1960s, is what could turn a nascent problem into a live and kicking crisis with the best young brains dismissing academic careers. It could undermine the quality of British higher education at a time when the Government is seeking to ensure that half of the under-30s get a higher education.

Malcolm Keight, assistant general secretary of the Association of University Teachers, believes it is impossible to see how the 50 per cent target can be met while maintaining quality teaching on current funding levels. "There is no available assessment of quality of recruits," he says. "If someone is reasonably competent and keen to teach and willing to do the job, in many universities that will be sufficient."

Under the new pay package a newly qualified lecturer at an "old" university, one that was in existence before 1992, will earn £20,267; his or her newly qualified colleague in a "new" university, one of the former polytechnics or higher education colleges which became universities after 1992, will earn slightly less.

In an old university this can rise to a maximum of £32,250, typically earned in the 34 to 40 age bracket. If you get promotion to senior lecturer, and not everybody does, you can earn £38,212 with the possibility of extra discretionary payments of a maximum of £3,000. A professor's pay comes in at £39,004. Typical professorial salaries are around £45,000 but a star name could earn £60,000 or £70,000 – a few higher still.

Tom Wilson, head of the universities' department at the National Association of Teachers in Further and Higher Education, says that the new pay deal represents a 4.3 per cent increase barely keeping pace with inflation. It is nowhere near the 10 per cent increase that would have been needed to reflect the findings of the Bett Report into academic pay and conditions, which said academics needed a 30 per cent pay increase over the next three years to bring them up to the pay levels received in comparable professions.

"You would have to be a lunatic to go into the job for the money," says Mr Wilson. "People do it because they are passionate about their subjects and enjoy being in an environment where that passion can be celebrated."

He says that universities are already offering higher pay to newly qualified lecturers in subjects such as economics and IT just to get someone to do the job. This creates tensions as a young person comes in on the same salary as someone who has been doing the job for 10 years. "The Government has to do something pretty radical to produce funding over the next couple of years so that we can raise salaries. Otherwise this could pose major quality problems."

Last year the Committee of Vice Chancellors and Principals, now known as Universities UK, published a report that warned recruitment and retention difficulties had the potential to undermine the UK's knowledge economy and the creation of a highly skilled workforce. It found that recruitment problems in some subjects were delaying new teaching and research projects and that long-term vacancies were being covered with part-time and visiting lecturers. It also identified that fewer graduates were embarking on academic careers and that pay levels were the problem.

Professor Roderick Floud, Provost of London Guildhall University and new president of Universities UK, says: "We do believe university pay has fallen behind comparable groups, particularly in some subjects, and that does lead to difficulties in attracting and retaining academic staff. I don't think anyone ever goes into university teaching for the money, but it is extremely important that they should have reasonable pay and reasonable return for their long training."

Natalie Fenton, 35, a senior lecturer in communication and media studies at Loughborough University and new president of the Association of University Teachers, earns £32,000 – a fifth of what her brother, who did the same degree in the same university – earns as manager of the European network of a multimedia company. He is three years younger.

She doubts that she would come into the profession now if she were a new graduate. "My undergraduates see me stretched to the extreme, and when they hear what I earn they tell me 'That's silly – no way would I do that'. It's really becoming hard for me to persuade them that doing research is fantastic. It's desperately competitive and it's bad money."