How Much Should a Professor’s Salary Be?

As government budgets get squeezed tighter and tighter these days, and their commitment to young people rests at the weird intersection of democracy and age demographics, it is somewhat inevitable that their contribution to post-secondary education costs will continue to fall.  This means increased tuition rates to make up the difference.  As Canadian students pay for more and more of their education out of their own pockets, the costs of post-secondary education come under a much brighter spotlight, and inefficiencies are looked for more and more avidly (one could easily argue this is a good thing and should have happened years ago).  One of the main expenditures of any university is what it pays its professors and other staff members.   When students look down at their debt numbers and then see the latest stats on faculty salaries, a fair degree of resentment or disbelief occurs.  Professors on the other hand are flabbergasted at the public’s reaction to their salaries when compared to people of similar credentials and specialized training in other sectors.  This begs the question of what exactly a fair salary is for someone who teaches a post-secondary course?

We’re #1!

Statistics Canada reported in 2010-2011 that the average full-time professor in Canada earned $115,513.  To put that into perspective, an accredited international study was done in 2012 that looked at the salaries of public university professors from 28 countries.  Canada’s professors were at the very top of the list.  Our academic elite was quick to point out that surveys like this fail to take into consideration that many courses are taught by staff that are not full-time and/or tenured.  Constance Adamson, President of the Ontario Confederation of University Faculty Associations stated, “This study focused on full-time tenured faculty but as we know, almost half of teaching is being done by non-tenured, contract academics staff,” in response to the study.   Constance goes on to point out that many of these professionals do not start earning the quoted salaries until their late 30s due to the nature of studying so many years, and then the long process of “paying your dues” in order to achieve tenured status.

Related: The Power of Rate My Proffessor

On the One Hand…

What academics don’t like to admit is that while the front end or entry level part of their careers might not be ideal, their final years are plump with increased benefits and perks of all kinds.  Tenured professors have some of the most well-protected jobs on the planet, and many of them keep collecting a top-end salary far into their advanced age despite a declining contribution to their employer.  There are all kinds of avenues to monetize your position as an experienced academic including book sales and/or administration that are not factored into many studies either.  While I couldn’t find any similar statistics for people who teach at trade schools or colleges, my guess would be that they are compensated much less thoroughly, and consequently do they have a stronger claim to larger paycheque?  Also, it is worth noting that while many career academics don’t make the quoted salary in their early working life, they do still make a decent salary in a variety of other positions within a university setting.

Given the unique nature of a professorial career, how do we determine what they should be paid?  There is an interesting argument for allowing the free market to sort it all out, just like it does with other careers.  The fact that more people are collecting Ph.Ds today, and there is not equivalent number of jobs opening up (leading to a supply glut on the market) means that an economist would say professors are obviously compensated too well.  On the other hand, there is definitely valid reasoning along the lines of arguing that yearly salaries are not an accurate representation of career compensation given the extended time professors have to spend attaining their credentials, and then working as “underpaid’ university faculty in various capacities.

Here are a few ideas for you to consider when thinking about the fairness of a professor’s salary:

1) Professors in the USA and UK make substantially less on average than Canadian professors despite higher tuition rates in those countries.

2) School teachers at the top tier of their contracts (10+ years of experience and two degrees), across Canada make over 80K.  If this is a relevant standard, the other salary numbers don’t look so high by comparison.

3) There is a huge range in demand for professors depending on the subject matter.

4) Several administration positions at every  Canadian university make a lot more than our Prime Minister.  The rationale most ivory towers use is that they need to pay that much to recruit top talent.  I would assume MPs and people vying to be Prime Minister would be considered fairly top-end talent (debatable I guess), but that’s just me.

5) Teaching and researching is likely a lot more demanding than administrating a university.  I have no data to back that up, I just know that managing a school division that has a similar number of students as a university doesn’t pay nearly as well as university administration positions do, and post-secondary students are much easier clientele to manage than teenagers.

Mo’ Money Mo’ Professors

Overall, I think one could make the solid argument that the administrators at universities could make A LOT less than they do.  Substantial perks and compensation could be taken from older, tenured professors in order to attract new young talent in the field (perhaps tenure should be much less binding, it seems crazy from an incentive perspective).  It strikes me as more fair to broaden out the salary pool to include a larger number of the people actually doing the teaching, marking, and research at a university, even if that would mean the high end taking a hit.  I appreciate how valuable education is in this day and age, and I know the sacrifice that multiple years in post-secondary education takes.  I’m not opposed to paying Canadian professors well, I just think the entire post-secondary system needs a systemic change in regards to how salary pools are distributed and how we value the entire compensation packages that professors receive at universities.  I also think a disservice is being done to many college teachers in what they get paid relative to their university counterparts.   This is clearly a lingering side effect of the institutional bias we have as a society towards the university stream of post-secondary education.

What do you think your professor should get paid?  How do we value teaching vs research skills?  What all needs to be taken into consideration?  Also, should ANY university administrator make more than our Prime Minister does (especially when you consider it is largely taxpayer dollars that write the cheque in both cases).

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