Below the Bar: Highlighting Inequities in Irish Academic Pay
A data-driven analysis of lecturer pay across Ireland’s major universities
Tableau Workbook containing a range of data visualization of Irish lecturer pay, including…
Tableau Workbook containing a range of data visualization of Irish lecturer pay, including comparisons, starting and…
As an American who took up a lecturer position at an Irish university at the end of 2021, I have seen a great deal of confusion concerning academic ranks, pay equity, and orgnisational structures.
The fact that many universities, including Trinity College Dublin, University College Dublin, and my own, University of Galway, are adopting North American-style titles that overlap with the traditional UK-style ones in a myriad of ways makes understanding the Irish system even more complex. The attempted simplification of academic rank and titles has seemingly added even more confusion — stacking on more statutes, loose definitions, and layers of bureaucracy to an already opaque system.
Let’s start with Irish academic titles 101: As anyone who has worked overseas is probably familiar, in the UK-style system, ‘lecturer’ is generally considered equivalent to a North American tenure-track ‘assistant professor.’ However, unlike in the States, where promotion and tenure are folded into a single life-changing event, promotion to Associate Professor (or the research equivalent), here — as in much of the UK, Europe, and Ireland, ‘tenure’ is effectively granted at the end of the probation. Probation involves a formal review by committee — a process that more or less mirrors American-style tenure. It typically happens some time during the second or third year, but it depends on the institution.
Academics who are new to Irish universities, including lecturers, as well as new staff (i.e., faculty) who are hired on as senior lecturers/associate professors must pass probation. Once this happens, you are given a ‘permanent’ or ‘continuing’ contract, and are effectively ‘tenured’. In the UK, as well as in Australia, New Zealand, and other postcolonial tertiary education systems, the next step is senior lecturer. As with lecturer and assistant professor, the rank of senior lecturer is typically equated with North American-style associate professor. For institutions in Ireland that have additional ranks like ‘personal professor’, a senior lecturer/associate professor is arguably closer to a North American full professor than an associate professor.
In Ireland, however, there exists an opaque layer between Lecturer and Senior Lecturer. In one way, it’s a form of institutional budget control, and in another way, it’s an administrative hurdle that significantly slows down staff salary progression. It is called the ‘bar’ or ‘merit bar’, and ‘progressing’ — or ‘advancing’ — across it involves a clone of the type of review that happens at the end of probation.
At every major Irish university, there are two kinds of full-time ‘lecturers’: both are tenure-track and Assistant Professor-level, both require the Ph.D, and as long as you’ve passed probation, both carry the equivalent of North American-style tenure, or permanence. These are called ‘Below the Bar’ (B/B) and there are ‘Above the Bar’ (A/B) contracts.
‘The bar’ is broad, institutionally defined, and represents an archaic construct that clings to colonial tertiary tradition. It is not explicitly defined in terms of day-to-day duties (teaching, scholarship, service), and the majority of modern positions no longer delineate differences in qualifications, duties, and responsibilities — even in the formal targets and competency frameworks in official documentation. At Galway, for example, the framework for lecturers is identical:
To put it simply, at most universities in Ireland, below- and above-bar lecturers have similar jobs, carry the same responsibilities, have most of the same duties outside of leadership roles like head of discipline, department/school and head of programme aka programme coordinator/director, and at a growing number of Irish institutions, they have the same title: ‘Assistant Professor’. A hundred years ago this might have been different, but today, as lecturer posts in Ireland are added to the school or department’s vacancies — some might have enough funds to offer ‘Below the Bar’ contracts, but most permanent lecturer posts — the overwhelming majority now — are allocated at above-the-bar salaries.
This is a special problem for academics who are not familiar with the Irish system, and for those who have already taken up academic jobs from outside Ireland, because of the significant salary differences and the layer of hurdles and time that is needed to move over to the higher salary scale. To investigate this in detail, I scraped the salaries and pay scales as of the most recent public sector pay increase in March 2023 for the two subcategories of lecturers (post 1995) at every major Irish university. Below I present this data along with some key summaries and observations.
The topline: Based on the data representing lecturer salaries from the seven major universities in Ireland, excluding Institutes of Technology and regional trade schools, as of 1 March 2023, lecturers at every Irish university on permanent ‘below the bar’ contracts see diminishing relative increases in their pay as they progress up the ladder, whereas no such trend exists for those on above the bar contracts. Lecturers on above-the-bar contracts pay increases are either constant or accelerate at subsequent steps. Additionally, the steps are not equal. Across all Irish universities, the number of steps/points —which correspond to a full year of service — on the lecturer B/B scale is, on average, twice that of the A/B scale. In other words, the ladder to climb to obtain salary increases is at least twice as high.
Lecturers on the above-the-bar permanent contracts in Ireland get, on average, a seven percent pay increase after each year of service per step/point. What’s more, all major Irish universities offers no less than a six percent pay increase for each step/point for lecturers above the bar, and three institutions, including Maynooth University, University College Dublin, and Trinity College Dublin, award step/point pay increases that average eight percent.
Below-the-bar lecturers in Ireland, on the other hand, see yearly pay increases of barely four percent on average, with the lowest increases being B/B lecturers at the University of Limerick, Dublin City University, and University of Galway who see 3.7 percent average increases, and the highest being B/B lecturers at Trinity College who see an average step increase of 4.75 percent.
To reiterate, lecturers on below-the-bar contracts are the only permanent full-time staff/regular academics who see diminishing returns in their pay increases after each year of service. There is no such trend for lecturers on above-the-bar contracts — or senior lecturers and professors, for that matter, a topic that I’ll save for later. All above-the-bar pay lecturer step/point pay increases are either consistent or have accelerating rates of pay at each step. And the majority of those have a ladder to climb in terms of pay increases that is less than half as tall.
Trinity College Dublin (TCD) is one of the institutions that moved to consolidated its lecturer pay to a single pay scale, changing the title of TCD lecturers to ‘assistant professor’. In comparison with the pre-merged lecturer pay scale (Type B), however, TCD’s merged scale simply created more steps — thus creating an even longer ladder — seventeen steps/points, no less — and one that starts at a lower salary: €38719 versus €42781 on the non-merged scale.
If you do the math, this means that a new lecturer at TCD starting on the first step of TCD’s merged scale will be close to retirement by the time they reach the highest point/step of the combined scale. Furthermore, TCD lecturers, now titled assistant professors, no longer see the same large pay incentive after crossing the ‘merit bar’ at step/point 12. In contrast to TCD’s pre-merged pay scale, there’s no longer an accompanying ~25% pay increase that comes after crossing the merit bar. That increase seems to happen two steps/points — aka two years — later. TCD lecturers/assistant professors who would have seen a nearly 25 percent pay increase after ‘crossing the merit bar’ at Step 13 do not appear get the increase until Step 15 on the merged scale.
Furthermore, TCD lecturers’ largest pay increases are stacked at the top of the seventeen-point merged scale. The ‘bar’ might no longer exist in job titles at Trinity, but it’s clearly there in the pay scale.
At University College Dublin (UCD), the trend in pay increases for lecturers ‘above the bar’ happens right away —with an 18 percent increase in salary at step 3 and another 8 percent increase at step 4, corresponding to around 25 percent more pay at the lower half of the A/B scale. This pattern is also the case at Dublin City University (DCU) and University of Limerick (UL). This means, in addition to the -€18595 salary difference, it will take a below-bar lecturer at UCD six years of service to see the same relative pay increase as an A/B gets after three years.
As you can see below, UCD’s above-bar lecturer point/step pay increases surge early and seem to level out at the later steps. UCD’s below-bar lecturer step increases, however, show not only significantly smaller pay increases, but also exhibit a decline from the beginning to the very end of the scale in contrast to the above-bar lecturer contracts.
To sum it up, along with every other major university in Ireland, UCD’s above-the-bar lecturers’ pay increases get larger over time, while the below-bar lecturers’ pay increases get smaller. By the end of the third year, step increases for UCD’s above-bar lecturers add up to nearly 20 percent versus only nine percent for the below-bar lecturers.
At Dublin City University (DCU), the lecturer ‘below the bar’ starting salary (Step 1) is €14504, or 33 percent lower than the A/B starting salary. This is not as wide of a pay gap as many of the other institutions, including University College Cork at -€34690 and University of Galway at -€29177, But DCU’s disparity in the scales’ step/point increments quickly makes up for the narrower starting pay gap. At DCU, it will take a lecturer on a below the bar contract four years (steps/points 2 to 5) to obtain the same relative pay increase as an A/B lecturer sees at the end of the first year.
Similar to the rest of the group, DCU’s salary step increases continue to trend downward for below-the-bar lecturers — accelerating at each step of the B/B scale, dropping from 5.8 percent after step 1 to just 2.65 percent at the end of the scale. In contrast, DCU’s above-bar lecturer pay increases nearly 50% from the start to finish, with 20 percent of this increase happening in the first three points/steps.
University College Cork (UCC) is an interesting case: UCC has the highest starting (Step 1) salary for lecturers above the bar at €72,602, compared to University College Dublin, which currently has the lowest starting salary at €56,504. This means that UCC lecturers on below-bar contacts start 92 percent lower than above-bar ones — roughly half.
UCC’s step increases have another interesting feature: On the above-bar lecturer scale, as is the trend, the pay step increases accelerate. However, UCC’s A/B scale ends on a fifth — and final step — with one of the largest upper step pay raises of any Irish university: more than nine percent. In contrast, UCC’s below-bar step increases trend in the opposite direction, with pay increases starting at 5.4 percent and ending at 3 percent after fourteen steps/points, or 14 years of service. UCC’s ratio of steps between the two scales is one of the widest in Ireland at 2.8, meaning B/B lecturers must to spend nearly three times the time in service to move up the scale.
Maynooth University (MU) does not have a ‘Below the Bar’ salary title, instead holding on to the antiquated Irish title ‘Assistant Lecturer’, which has a pay range and scale that is nearly identical to other universities’ below the bar scales. The largest increase for A/B lecturers happens at Step 3, which is equivalent to more than three steps/points on the B/B scale. Additionally, below-bar lecturers at Maynooth take twice as long to advance — two steps for every step on the higher lecturer pay scale.
University of Limerick (UL)
UL’s below-bar lecturers start roughly €20000 lower in pay and barely manage out a three percent average pay increase for each step, whereas the institution’s above-bar contracts increase nearly eighteen percent after the first year and continue two to three percent higher than the B/Bs at each respective step/point. However, the ratio of steps between the A/B and B/B pay ladders is one of the lowest of the group at 1.1.
University of Galway (UofG)
Galway’s posted pay data, which is a maze of abbreviated and outdated position titles, is at least a year out of date on the HR website and needed adjustment to account for the latest (March 2023) government pay increase. Galway shows one of the highest pay disparities in the group between lecturers on above and below-bar lecturer contracts, with the A/B pay scale starting at €71509, nearly 70 percent higher than the lower. The ratio, or inflation of steps, for those on a B/B contracts is also one of the largest, with lecturers needing to advance 2.6 steps/points on the below-bar scale for every step on the university’s above-bar lecturer scale.
The takeaway, here, is that there are two lecturers in Ireland: one pays between 33 and 70 percent less, the pay increases diminish over time, and it takes two to three times as long to realise these increases. The other scale pays more, the step increases are constant or accelerate over time, and it takes less than half the time to realise these increases.
Irish universities will need to take a hard look at the below-the-bar position. If and when the pay scales are merged, lecturers who happen to be on below-bar contracts must be given a full review of qualifications to ensure they are placed at appropriate step on the merged scale. Otherwise, as seems to be the case at TCD, below-bar lecturers will essentially be moved over to a longer ladder. Staff who were hired into positions that happened to be budgeted at below the bar but have duties, experience, and qualifications at an equivalent or higher rank should be re-graded and/or moved to the respective step on the merged scale that reflects their qualifications, contributions, and years of service.
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