Today's porters and professors might express their affection for academe differently from Skullion, head porter of Porterhouse, Tom Sharpe's mythical Cambridge college, but they are no less aware of how badly they're paid. Indeed, pay levels have worsened since the 1950s and the days when academic salaries were pegged to those of civil servants.
A new study prepared for the Dearing committee by Hay Management Consultants reveals a gulf between the pay of almost all university staff and comparable employees in the private sector and the rest of the public sector. And that's before company cars, bonus payments and other perks are taken into account. That gap is regarded as intolerable by university vice chancellors and college principals, especially given the productivity gains to which staff have contributed over the past decade.
"If allowed to continue, or to worsen, it will become even more difficult to sustain the recruitment, retention, morale and motivation of the quality staff on which higher education utterly depends," says Stephen Rouse, chief executive of the Universities and Colleges Employers Association, in a letter to Sir Ron Dearing.
Sponsored by the employers and eight unions and with Lord Borrie QC as independent commissioner, the study found that a professor in an old university earns an average of pounds 40,181 a year, compared with pounds 57,666 for an equivalent job in the private sector and pounds 51,036 in the rest of the public sector.
A junior lecturer (lecturer A in the table) aged around 30 with a PhD and a bit of postdoctoral research in an old university can begin at a minimum of pounds 15,593, not much more than a newly trained school teacher starting out in his or her early twenties. The junior lecturers' scale rises to pounds 20,424 and the average for all junior lecturers in old universities is pounds 18,592, lower than sums earned by equivalent employees in the private and rest of the public sector.
The picture for technical and administrative jobs in universities looks a good deal rosier. Many higher education staff in such positions do better than their colleagues outside. But manual staff, particularly in the old universities, fare badly. A porter in an old university, for example, earns a base salary of pounds 7,613 annually compared with pounds 8,359 for a porter in a new university. And a storeman in an old university takes home pounds 7,613, compared with pounds 8,077 in a new university and more than pounds 12,000 in the market outside.
Why has university pay fallen so far behind? One reason is the funding crisis that has progressively ratcheted down the cost per student. Another is that university employees lack industrial clout. "Generally speaking, there's nothing very much that academics have done or are likely to do which will cause the kind of public difficulty that school teachers caused in 1986 and 1987," says David Triesman, general secretary of the Association of University Teachers. "You don't have kids being sent home at lunchtime."
Moreover, the general public still believes academics lead an exquisitely indolent life - long, lazy summer holidays and punting on the river - not realising how much academic life has changed with the advent of the research assessment exercise and successive waves of belt-tightening.
But perhaps most important is the fact that most academics love their work, particularly their research, and some even adore teaching. "The argument here is that you can pay them more or less nothing and they will carry on doing it," says Triesman. "So, governments have not felt under any real pressure to do anything about it."
The fact that there are so many applicants for most academic jobs means there are no market pressures on salaries. But in a few areas - applied economics, accountancy and law - where academics can jump to the private sector for much higher rewards, one does see evidence of stress. Michael Power, professor of accounting at the London School of Economics, says it is becoming increasingly difficult to recruit people to teach accounting. He receives five or six applications for posts, compared with the 150 received by history and English departments.
Other academics talk about how difficult it is becoming to recruit the best people for jobs that are so poorly paid compared with similar jobs in other sectors in Britain, and compared with academic jobs abroad. The brain drain has been with us since the 1960s, and it shows no sign of going away.
Academics earn more in many other industrial countries and enjoy superior conditions: they don't have to teach such long hours. Professors at Ivy League universities in the States, for example, earn more than $100,000 (pounds 65,000) a year; they enjoy high status and better research funding.
Matthew Freeman, who works as a molecular biologist with the Medical Research Council in Cambridge and is on the executive of Save British Science, did postdoctoral research in America and says he would not have returned to a university post in Britain because of the conditions. As it was, he was able to get a job at a MRC institute in Cambridge.
"The disincentive to becoming an academic nowadays is tremendous," he says. "I have never taken the view that salary is the most important reason why morale in universities is so low but I would be foolish to pretend that it's not a fairly serious issue."
Oxford and Cambridge are finding it difficult to fill top professorial positions for reasons of pay, says Dr Freeman. It really matters in higher education to recruit the best people to teach the next generation and to carry out the research needed for a high-tech economy. But what we're seeing is the best people shunning higher education.
All of which explains why the Dearing committee is coming under pressure to take action. The AUT favours annual pay review on the model of teachers and nurses. It has submitted to Dearing a new study undertaken by Chris Trinder, chief economist at the Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy, which concludes that pay review could halt the relative decline in academic pay.
As it is, a bright young person would have to be foolish to become an academic today, according to David Triesman. "If you're good at maths, you should go into a school and after a few years become head of the maths department because that way you would earn a lot more than a lecturer on the basic scale," he says. Alternatively, you could become a police sergeant
Less money all round
Head porter: pounds 8,687 a year compared with the Council of Europe's recommended decency threshold of pounds 12,500.
Ray Bartlett, 57, is a head porter at Bristol University, in charge of Canynge Hall which houses the department of social medicine. He has been in the job for almost six years. His functions include working the switchboard, sorting the post and delivering it, emptying rubbish bins and dealing with students and the public.
Mr Bartlett does better than many other porters in the old universities because he is a head porter and because Bristol pays its manual staff a 20p an hour supplement. Previously, he worked in private industry as a driver where he earned almost double. He says of university pay: "It's very, very poor. I am 57 and my mortgage is paid for but I don't know how young people with a couple of children manage. It's a disgrace really."
Finance officer: pounds 33,202 a year compared with pounds 40,000-plus she could earn in private industry.
Suzy Bishop, 50, is a senior assistant treasurer, head of the property services section of the finance division at Cambridge University. She is responsible for budgeting and controlling expenditure on minor works, maintenance, rents, utilities and insurance for all new and existing university buildings. She accounts for pounds 40m to pounds 45m a year of university money. Fourteen staff report directly to her.
Three-and-a-half years ago Mrs Bishop worked as a financial controller for a private company. If she had stayed in the private sector, she would have become finance director of a medium-sized company, she believes, and earned 15 to 40 per cent more plus a company car and private health care.
A Cambridge graduate of modern languages, she has a diploma in management studies and is a member of the Chartered Institute of Management Accountants. The two benefits in her university job: five weeks' holiday a year and a good pension scheme. Of her salary she says: "I am not complaining but I think it's a bit poor."
The academic: pounds 25,000 a year, who could earn double in the private sector.
Peter Robinson, 32, is a research fellow at the London School of Economic's Centre for Economic Performance, who specialises in unemployment, pay determination and pay inequality, comparative economic performance, and education, training and economic performance.
A full-time researcher on a fixed-term contract, he does no teaching. But he is building a reputation as a perceptive analyst of the labour market and was surprised last year to find himself quoted by the former chief secretary to the Treasury, William Waldegrave.
A one-time school teacher, Mr Robinson believes the job he does now is easier in many ways than teaching. He likes the autonomy that comes with being a research fellow and he doesn't think academics have too much cause to moan.
"I don't feel badly paid. If I wanted to get a better-paid job, I could have gone to work in the city like some of my friends did. People who make the choice to stay within academia are consciously foregoing higher earnings because they enjoy what they're doing."
Old Universities Average Salary pounds Private Sector pounds Public Sector pounds
Professor 40,181 57,666 51,036
Reader 34,881 41,705 37,846
Senior Lecturer 32,028 34,932 31,805
Lecturer B 26,355 28,158 25,982
Lecturer A 18,592 23,532 22,976
Professor 37,541 54,450 48,792
Principal Lecturer 31,211 34,932 31,805
Senior Lecturer 26,296 30,155 27,732
Experienced Lecturer 18,617 23,532 22,976
Independent Pay Commission