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Alan Ryan: Why I'm paying our tutors more money

Everyone knows that over the past 30 years academic pay has slipped compared with similar white-collar occupations. In the Sixties, a professor made much the same as an under-secretary in the civil service, a keeper at the British Museum, a GP, or a solicitor in mid-career.

Now, the professor is looking at £45,000 and the others at twice that. Many professors make very much more than £45,000, of course, particularly if they take advantage of their bargaining power while the Research Assessment Exercise is in full swing. But, just as £45,000 is the starting point for professors, the bottom of the comparable civil service scale is £89,000, while junior solicitors in City firms get £40,000 a year after qualification and go on from there.

Last October, the lecturers' unions asked for a substantial rise to close the gap a bit. The vice-chancellors said they couldn't afford it. Presumably, they meant that if they had the money, they'd spend it on faculty pay. So I'm surprised that when New College managed to find some more money a year ago and used it to improve faculty pay, colleagues elsewhere griped about it. Something I've never understood about Oxford - actually, about British academic life generally - is why so many people are happy with equal misery, but deeply upset if anyone else strikes it lucky. It is one of the sharpest contrasts between British and American academia.

Oxford faculty - Cambridge, too - do things for their colleges that they wouldn't have to do elsewhere. They share the administrative burdens of running a workers' co-operative - more politely, an "academic democracy" - while tutorial faculty also teach a lot, and have heavier pastoral and social duties than in other institutions.

It's not easy to recruit good people who can earn more elsewhere for a less demanding job. So, we have given everyone who plays some part in running the college £2,500 a year (much like several other colleges), and we have given tutors another £7,500 a year for the duties peculiar to their jobs; we can afford it, but we will have to think again if there is a miracle and employers restore the former value of academic salaries.

An extra £10,000 a year puts up the pay of a world-class scholar aged 30 from that of a middling secretary in the City of London to that of a director's PA - from around £26,000 to £36,000 a year. That's also the bottom of the lecturers' pay scale that Imperial College established a few years ago. The top of the scale is about £21,000 higher, and while £57,000 is more than the £50,000 that financial consultants were offering last week to the sharpest of their 22-year-old entrants, it compares badly with the £90,000 that a bright 45-year-old would expect in the civil service, let alone what a really high flyer might get.

It is not relevant that the vice-chancellor of Oxford earns £200,000 and the Registrar £165,000. What is relevant is that a college that helps younger faculty helps the wider university. The university can't be a centre of high-grade teaching and research unless it can recruit and retain high-grade faculty. Under the pressure of the RAE, Oxford and all universities are paying many people far more than £10,000 a year extra to keep them or acquire them from elsewhere. To the extent that a college helps recruitment, it helps the university.

Is it unfair that some colleges can afford to pay more than others? It is; it's unfair in the same way that it's unfair that some businesses can pay more than others and that some occupations can pay more. New College owned some land, and after 12 years of very hard work, got planning permission to put up a lot of houses, so the endowment is larger and so too, therefore, is the income it produces. Half a dozen other colleges are at different stages of the same process. But Oxford also has some badly off colleges. It is partly a matter of luck which college you teach at, so you can see why people think it's unfair that some do better than others. But it is only partly a matter of luck. Nobody has to work in Oxford. If they don't like it, they have a remedy.

Realistically, not everyone in a badly off college is individually badly off - clinical faculty are paid much more than non-clinical faculty, and business school salaries are not at all bad. Nor does anything a college can do make anything like the difference that inheriting a house or acquiring a high-earning partner does. I've not heard anyone wanting to share those windfalls with their colleagues, or even the incomes from consultancy that scientists can earn and humanists can't.

Still, anyone who is the wage-earner in a single-earner household, who works in a humanities department and is attached to a non-prosperous college can decently complain that they've drawn the short straw. Having complained, they should take the next step: get a different job.

The writer is warden of New College Oxford