“High fliers”

No doubt we all noticed this article in today’s Irish Independent. Aside from the issue of whether great universities require great academics or great beurocrats (and the intriguing question of how come, in this trawl for world class talent, the people chosen are so often Irish), one needs to ask what price Irish universities need to pay to get great academics, assuming that they want them.

Presumably that price is falling rapidly, for several reasons. First, a little bit of googling suffices to make it clear that the academic job market is collapsing in the United States. The contributors to this blog will all be familiar with this AEA site listing cancelled or suspended job searches, and there are many more indicators available out there. Second, the high Irish property prices which were used as an excuse for high salaries are also collapsing.

And then there is the bigger picture. The state just can’t afford to pay enormous salaries any more. Moreover, there are obvious political considerations that can’t be ignored. Given that people at the bottom are going to see their net income fall, the case for a cap on all wages paid for in whole or in part by the taxpayer is becoming increasingly compelling. Many posts ago, I suggested a cap of 200K, but that now seems much too generous. 150K should be enough for anyone, and if people want to chance their luck on the national or international market places, good luck to them.

10 replies on ““High fliers””

A salary cap on university employees would be a misguided way of treating a symptom rather than tackling the underlying problem of how salaries and benefits are allocated in the public sector. Surely better solutions would be to reduce the stickiness of salaries and take a more fundamental look at the manner in which salaries are decided in the university system and the incentive structures within it.

Short sighted, reactionary and populist policies such as this will almost certainly damage the chances of Irish universities excelling at an international level.

In fact, given that the international market is collapsing at present maybe now the best strategy for Ireland is to open our arms, an investment of a couple of millions in true high flier’s salaries could do a lot to get us out of this mess!

Mark, like all public servants, Irish academics are paid more than our colleagues in the rest of Europe — a lot more in the case of many countries. At current exchange rates our salaries look pretty good in a US context also. And it beats me how paying a bunch of beurocrats these sorts of salaries is supposed to contribute to the Irish “innovation ecosystem”.

Kevin, I agree with you 100% which is why a more fundamental look at the system is needed, that is if we don’t trust it to make decisions above 150k its likely their sub optimal under within the boundary too. For instance would a cap at 150k lead to hundreds of salaries of 150k exactly? The ratio of academic to bureaucrat pay and the possible merits of altering it in favour of academics will not be solved by a simply wage ceiling. What I was admittedly unclearly referring to above was the potential for attracting world class academics.

Mark, for sure we want to attract the best possible scholars to Ireland. I suspect that for most really good academics, the key issue is to be able to do their research to the best of their ability. For that they need good facilities, which costs money, good students, a central administration that is supportive rather than intrusive, and above all good colleagues. A transparent, meritocratic environment is also important for morale. If you get those things right then you don’t have to pay academics a fortune to get them to work for you. (House prices were an issue during the bubble. Thankfully that issue is gradually disappearing.)

Kevin, for sure the preference revealed by becoming an academic rather than work in the private sector shows the average scholar to be motivated by more than material gains. However, it would be a mistake to disregard pay, particularly from a signaling aspect. High salaries demonstrate a willingness on the part of the University to compete and succeed on all the fronts you mentioned, a salary cap would send the opposite message. Furthermore, given that Ireland lacks in some (but not all) of the areas mentioned these shortcomings have to be made up for by making the overall package more attractive via higher salaries.

I don’t see much value in competing for the ‘skills’ of some of the people mentioned. There seems to be little or no value gained from the accumulation in some universities of these overpaid administrators. In fact, in many cases their managerialism has been intrusive rather than supportive and has damaged collegiality, hampering the conditions that Kevin rightly identifies as what academics really want: “good facilities, which costs money, good students, a central administration that is supportive rather than intrusive, and above all good colleagues”.

Even on the academic side, I have my doubts (at the risk of sounding like a turkey voting for Christmas). Despite the huge salary advantage I don’t see a huge influx of the best US and UK academics, for example, to Ireland. The most direct effect has probably been to negate the house price problem for Irish-born academics returning from outside the country and for SFI Professors (and that is a whole other discussion). The single change that policy makers could introduce to attract academics to Ireland would be to lessen the administrative (and marking) burdens on academic staff. The trend in that area seems to be in the opposite direction.

Kevin, one of your arguments for why salaries can be lowered is the decline in house prices. However, as someone who has recently immigrated from here, I have no ability to borrow in Ireland to buy a house. Even as a full professor, I have had no end of trouble getting a simple credit card here. True, gone are the days of absolutely insane housing prices (now they’re down to the merely nutty). But equally gone are the days of easy access to mortgages, even for those of us with solid, well-paying jobs. So I have to disagree with the idea that Ireland can attract top talent even with lower wages just because the price of houses is falling.

The issue of levels of salaries is of some importance in so far as it is another manifestation of the very corrosive L’Oreal philosophy of the business and the (Irish) political worlds that they have to be highly paid “because they are worth it” and is also a disturbing example of a rather cavalier attitude, especially in UCD, to the “regulator” of the university system and to the ethical framework and values which should apply. About half the high salaries are accounted for by UCD.

However, I suggest that economists should be much more concerned about the influence that the research philosophy in institutions like UCD is having on Irelands approach to economic development. It is not at all clear that the emphasis on basic research, especially in the biomedical area, is correct for a small country like Ireland. I believe that exploiting cutting-edge developments in research that takes place worldwide and applying them for our benefit should be our priority, and that the ICT area is likely to have much more potential than the life-sciences area for us in terms of establishing new indigenous enterprises.

I include extracts from a memo I prepared some months ago dealing with these matters.
There have been a number of issues referred to recently dealing with science and innovation; the importance and the need for R&D for the services sector, especially traded services; the need for R&D for the building sector and the broad environmental sector; and the funding and the teaching priorities for third level institutions. As someone who has recently retired from UCD and who was very active in both teaching and research I feel compelled to say that we seem to be making a serious error in one aspect of our approach to research, development and innovation.

A fairly widespread but narrow, and dare I say, blinkered view of the role of basic/fundamental research is shown in the approach of SFI and some of the universities at least. I believe that a wide-ranging review is called for into the likely return that the people of Ireland will get from the large sums of the money that are currently being distributed on basic research by Science Foundation Ireland (SFI) and the Higher Education Authority (HEA). The emphasis on basic research in much of the funding is, I believe, misplaced.

The probability that any individual basic science research project will lead to some tangible benefit to society in the medium term is very low. Many projects will, in fact, contribute nothing of value except a few scientific papers that may occasionally be read by other academics and researchers. Because of the very low probability that any individual project will lead to anything of value it is reckless for a small country to invest a large proportion of its research budget into, of necessity, a limited number of basic research projects. While it makes perfectly good sense for the US government or the EU to invest in a large number of basic research projects, confident that some will give a good return, it is rash for us to invest in a small number in the (rather vain) hope that we might strike it lucky. If our researchers can get funding for basic research from the EU or from major international foundations so much the better, but the Irish government should strictly limit its funding of basic research.

University research in Ireland should probably be based on the Massachusetts Institute of Technology model. It is a world-class educational institution where teaching and research—with relevance to the practical world as a guiding principle—continues to be its primary purpose. High quality applied research which address real problems is much more complex and more challenging than a lot of basic research; and it is usually educationally more valuable than conducting basic research without reference to any real-world applications. In Ireland we will have to be selective but our emphasis should be on the applied research rather than basic research but using the best techniques and the most recent developments from anywhere around the world in carrying out our applied research. Basic research is usually freely available via the normal publication channels. However, establishing linkages with the best universities where the most relevant basic and applied research is being conducted should probably be a priority for us in Ireland.
The mission of the SFI is to build and strengthen scientific and engineering research and its infrastructure in the areas of greatest strategic value to Ireland’s long-term competitiveness and development. However, four of the five metrics which the SFI have set to measure its success deal with principal investigators, research fellows and postdoctoral researchers in underpinning disciplines; articles in international journals; membership of international academic societies; and patents and licenses filed (but not necessarily used by anyone). Only one metric refers to commercial start-ups and multinational and indigenous investments in R&D. These metrics are, I believe, indicative of a narrow approach which is not best suited to the mission of the SFI.

Might I also suggest that the metrics used to rank universities on a world scale may not be consistent with the objectives, explicit or otherwise, which Irish society has for our third level institutions? Very creative research on the optimum design of wind energy or wave energy systems for Irish conditions will hardly win a Nobel prize; or even get published in the highest ranked international journals. Individuals engaged in such valuable applied research are made to feel like second class academics, in some universities at least. Those engaged in SFI-funded projects are strongly in favour of basic/fundamental research as against applied research; and a small minority of PhDs and post-docs leaving SFI projects have gone into industry. The Indecon report on the SFI calls for (1) increased focus on effective industry collaboration and measures to enhance the commercialisation of research; (2) increased focus to align collaborations by SFI-funded researchers with the requirements of industry based in Ireland; and (3) the development agencies, including IDA Ireland and Enterprise Ireland, to intensify efforts to engage new and existing client companies with SFI-funded research teams/centres. Clearly, the approach taken in a major part of the SFI programme merits attention.

The activities of the SFI and our research funding agencies raise a number of related issues affecting our third level institutions.
(1) Are the (short-term) funding activities of the SFI distorting the (long-term) staffing decisions of the universities (and institutes of technology?) with long-term consequences for the university teaching programmes? Are specialised researchers valuable/useful for most undergraduate teaching? Has the amount of time devoted to teaching by staff been reduced while they pursue their research interests? Are the activities of the SFI and the HEA properly co-ordinated? Are the functions of the institutes of technology being deflected by the activities of the funding agencies?
(2) How is R & D supposed to lead to economic development? What models or precedents are being followed? If research is supposed to lead to the establishment of hi-tech SMEs, as in the Silicon Valley model, is there any likelihood that biomedical research will lead to the establishment of SMEs in the health sciences area? I would be very concerned about the usefulness of basic research in the life sciences; but less so about research in the ICT area.
(3) The World Bank stated that to rapidly increase R & D spending in an attempt to reach the EU target of 3% of GDP by 2010 may result in throwing good money after bad. Are our structures adequate to avoid making this mistake?

Could I point out that the Irish economy and our industrial development did brilliantly during the 1990’s. The graduates from our universities and institutes of technology performed very well. This was before the SFI was even established, and spending on research was minimal. The high growth rates in the economy since the turn of the millennium were greatly dependant on the unsustainable expansion of the building sector plus consumption driven by an explosion in personal debt. It probably has had very little to do with SFI-funded basic research. It would be instructive to examine what contribution a representative sample of Irish basic research over the last 10 years has made (or is about to make in the near future) to the Irish economy, or to examine how has Irish basic research in biomedical sciences has improved best practice in Irish health care.
These are just some of the issues which the politicians and the policy makers (and economists) must address. We need a wide-ranging debate with inputs from many quarters. Academics and researchers often have a very blinkered view. I have searched a great many sources for some insight into the issues raised – without a lot of success. There are no ready answers to these questions. We must be ready to question the conventional wisdom. The politicians and policy makers should demand clear and concise explanations for the various activities undertaken. They should demand a reasonable estimate of value for money for broad areas of activity and should hold people accountable for their “promises”. A lifetime in one of our universities has taught me to always be sceptical of the conventional wisdom, and that Hans Christian Anderson was correct in that the emperors frequently have no clothes.

I think you need to go back to fundamentals, why are the universities controlled by the government in the first place? They should be independent private institutions. The latest TCD – UCD joining forces is a great plan but due to government inertia and underfunding the universities can never really prosper. Dependency is never a good state to be in and always having the risk of independence taken away by government is not a good position either.

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