Leading article: Academics are not so badly paid

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The universities' industrial dispute has been getting quite nasty. Each side expresses itself amazed by the other's behaviour - which is unsurprising, perhaps, given the issues at stake.

For outsiders, it is difficult to establish the truth of some of the figures and claims. The first of these - that the vice-chancellors have extra money from the Higher Education Funding Council that they could use to make a generous pay claim - is easier to answer than others. There is more money this year from Hefce - just under six per cent. Quite a large chunk, around 1.5 per cent, is for raised student numbers. So that can't be used for a pay increase. Two per cent is to cover inflation. Again, that can't be used for higher pay. Some, around 1.5 per cent, is for research, and 1 per cent is for widening participation.

That money could be interpreted as money that could be used to pay staff more. But many universities prefer to spend the extra money recruiting high-profile academics who will burnish the university's reputation and enable them to lever more research money. It is understandable that they want to use the money for selective hiring or promotion. Arguably that is a rational use of their resources, however much the academic unions resent it.

The second question, whether academics still are seriously underpaid, depends on which figures you look at. The employers quote figures from the Office of National Statistics that show earnings, including increments and promotion, and enable comparisons with other groups of employees. These figures enable them to say that 49 per cent of full-time academic staff are on senior salary scales, earning more than £40,000.

The unions prefer to use figures from the Higher Education Statistics Agency that give basic salary scales and don't reflect what staff actually earn. They enable the unions to focus on low earners, such as researchers on a starting salary of £13,500. Never mind that fewer than 100 people are on that grade in post-1992 institutions. The employers object that the figure does not given a true indication of what people are paid in higher education.

Five years ago the case for a big pay rise could be made. But it is not so easy to make now because of recent salary rises and the pay modernisation package that is giving academics quite a bit more, particularly in some institutions.