Exposing the Gap: It’s 2023, and Structural Pay Inequality at the University of Galway Has Never Been Worse

Jonathan Albright
10 min readNov 26, 2023

One of Ireland’s largest institutions of higher learning, the University of Galway stands tall. Yet, beyond the ivy-clad offices looking out onto its historic quad, buried underneath the press releases, ‘gender pay gap’ showcasing, and social media posts heralding progress on issues of equality — including Bronze and Silver Athena SWAN awards, behind closed doors, in the spring of 2023, the university’s management waged the equivalent of nuclear war on the largest contingent of their academic staff.

‘Eur-thena’ image created by author & dall-e

While the university, f.k.a. NUI Galway (NUIG) and University College Galway (UCG), is no stranger to cases of gender discrimination, what makes the current situation so grave is the sheer lack of value and respect of the staff by the university’s higher management. This time around, the pay inequity goes beyond gender bias in individual promotions — it spans every permanent lecturer contract at the university.

Act One: The Amalgamation (Spring 2023)

Earlier this year, in line with other Irish universities, the University of Galway decided to merge its dual lecturer pay scales — ‘Above the Bar’ and ‘Below the Bar’ — into a unified ‘amalgamated’ scale. In the process, lecturer’s starting pay (compared to the lower salary tier) increased from ~€43000 to ~€60000, and the distinction of the ‘bar’ was eliminated.

Figure 1 — University of Galway Below Bar (Direct Entry) Pay Scale vs Amalgamated Pay scale (2023)

At nearly €60000, Step 1 on the amalgamated pay scale is good news for incoming staff. The removal of the ‘bar’ is also a positive change, as it addresses a concern I have written in detail about. The pay restructuring allows for more competitive international hiring and recruitment, and it makes for positive press.

Bad Decisions: The Trade Off

Unfortunately, there is another side to the story. It begins with the fact that despite merging the older lecturer pay scales into one, and shifting the base lecturer pay tens of thousands of euros higher, the university’s management decided to leave the currently employed lecturers on the old pay scales.

As a result, the University of Galway did the opposite of unifying, or ‘amalgamating’ the lecture pay scales— it created a third pay scale, reserved — and funded by the government — for new hires.

In doing this, the university created an unprecedented structural pay gap — in 2023, no less, as management effectively locked existing lecturers inside of the old pay structures. Looking at the points/steps on the amalgamated scale (Figure 1), ‘Above the Bar’ lecturers shouldn’t be too concerned about the new scale.

The 65 ‘Below the Bar’ lecturers who are employed at the University of Galway (see Figure 2a below) —the majority of whom the university reported as female on my recent FoIA— should be alarmed. This is because lecturers who happen to be hired after July 2023 start at the equivalent of Step 9 on the ‘Below the Bar’ scale, but the ‘bar’ no longer exists (for them).

Consequently, an incoming lecturer on the amalgamated scale with no experience is paid more than an existing lecturer with eight years of full-time service at the university.

The consequences of the pay restructuring by the university management are particularly devastating because the introduction of a unified, ‘amalgamated’ pay scale should have improved pay equity at the University of Galway. Instead, it is smoke and mirrors — it made the pay disparity monumentally worse, because it embedded it even deeper structurally.

The university’s actions — and lack thereof — are arguably unprecedented in terms of structural, group-based pay disparity at a public institution of higher learning in present-day Ireland. The aftermath of the lecturer pay restructuring also has a significant gender-based pay discrimination component, which I detail below with data obtained from a recent FoIA.

Act Two: Earn the Right to Fair Pay (July 2023 — present)

Despite early suggestions of the proactive ‘remapping’ of pay-disparaged lecturers over to the amalgamated scale, from the time of the pay restructuring that happened in the spring of 2023 to present, the University of Galway lacks a formalised process or fair policy for transitioning staff who were immediately — and severely — financially disparaged by the new pay scale, some to the tune of tens of thousands of euros in annual salary (see Figure 1 above).

From a legal standpoint, beyond representing an egregious oversight of equity standards, these actions represent organisational negligence, as well as a lack of diligence around ethical personnel management. To make matters worse, the university leadership, as well as the union have remained silent on addressing the issue as a collective matter, and to date, no formal process or policy to fairly and collectively resolve the grievances of impacted lecturers (well, at least those who find out), and facilitate their move as a group over to the amalgamated scale has been put into place.

This represents the second act of war on lecturers by the university management: failing to ensure an equitable, transparent, and direct transition process to equal pay for existing staff, people whom they surely knew would be immediately disadvantaged in pay compared to new hires. And many of whom, at least 44 individuals (see figure 2a) apparently now work in the same schools and disciplines.

Though the story begins with a still-unknown series of university management team decisions (see Figure 3’s FoIA), at present, lecturers’ only pay equity resolution option is a piecemeal of policy juggling, bureaucratic obstructionism through a process managed by human resources, and later to some degree, their college.

Lecturers at Galway who demand pay equity are being instructed to volunteer to navigate a labyrinthine process. It involves ‘earning the right’ to the amalgamated-equivalent salary on their old scale. In some cases, they are presented with individual ‘backpay’ deals by human resources.

Exacerbating what arguably represents an unprecedented act of structural pay inequity at an Irish university; the aggrieved staff’s path to pay parity includes being asked to voluntarily apply for a daunting review process to ‘cross the bar’ — a relic from the older dual pay structure. Adding insult to injury, these underpaid lecturers must undergo the burdensome ‘progression’ process, which, ironically does not exist for their newly hired peers.

The ‘progression’ process is not only time-consuming, typically taking three months, but requires the lengthy approval of a presidentially-appointed academic committee, including the lecturers’ peers, associate deans, and their line managers/heads of school. All the while, their newly hired peers are making thousands of euros more doing the exact same jobs.

Lecturers on the below-bar scale who succeed in their progression intending to be paid the same as new hires on the same step of the amalgamated scale won’t. This is because staff are trapped in the old pay structure and policies, which were never updated, and it means that their pay cannot be increased any higher than step 6 on the amalgamated scale because it corresponds to step 1 on the old above bar scale.

Aggreived staff will have a pay gap if they are at step 6 or higher on the old scale. The higher the step the staff member is on the below-bar scale when they apply for ‘progression’, the larger the pay disparity will be compared to the equivalent step on the new amalgamated scale.

As such, staff member’s only option for resolving this kind of structural pay disparity is nothing short of madness.

University of Galway lecturers seeking clarity on their pay equity must sift through scant internal resources, as the university has kept the amalgamated scale largely under wraps, sharing no formal information about the opportunity for lecturers to transition via monthly HR emails, despite regular presidential announcements boasting new government partnerships, funding opportunities, and industry initiatives.

All of this seems to be part of a deliberate choice by university management to leave the specifics of the new salary structure shrouded in secrecy — in favour of attracting new hires with a higher salary scale.

Act Three: The XX Factor

To address some of the serious concerns above, I filed two Freedom of Information Act (FoIA) requests in September 2023. One request sought comprehensive data from the University of Galway listing the grade (rank), gender, and respective point/step on the three salary scales: ‘Above the Bar’, ‘Below the Bar’, and ‘amalgamated’. The university fulfilled this request in late October.

Figure 2: FoIA FOI2023083 (request fulfilled in complete by UoG)

The data below, procured directly from the university’s FoIA office, shows that the amalgamated pay scale is not only discriminatory in terms of pay for most Below the Bar lecturers, but in particular for female lecturers. The majority of lecturers reported by the university in the lower-paid, significantly pay-disparaged ‘Below Bar’ grade are female.

Figure 2a: Data returned from FoIA request

This data provided by the university in Figure 2a further support the view that the amalgamated scale was likely a recruitment move by the university management, but was also a trade-off, as it was a decision that they surely knew would create group- and gender-based pay discrimination across their lower-paid existing lecturer staff.

These actions contrast sharply with the university’s rosy public image of advancing gender pay equity, the Athena SWAN awards, and the ‘fair pay’ policies — not to mention the substantial funding that the institution has received in part for meeting these so-called goals.

In a bid to investigate the origins and details of the pay scale restructuring at the University of Galway, I submitted a second Freedom of Information Act (FoIA) request. The request focused on obtaining detailed records — including documents showing the effective date of implementation of the amalgamated pay scale; the management’s decision-making paper trail and formal meeting minutes; the initial pay scale restructuring proposal, and records of the policy changes and steps through implementation and sign-offs from university leadership, including from the President.

Figure 3 — FoIA FOI2023082

On the second FOI2023082 request (see Figure 3), the University of Galway consistently evaded compliance to the point of what the Information Commissioner’s Office terms as a second-stage ‘deemed refusal’.

For FOI2023082, the university did not respond by their initial deadline, including after a Sec. 13 FoIA extension in September, or by their subsequent ‘internal review’ deadline. This serial noncompliance currently represents a violation of the FoIA Act, and as of this week, places the university at risk of an intervention by the Office of the Information Commissioner. A formal appeal regarding FOI2023082 has been lodged and accepted.

All of the evidence at this stage points to deep ethical cracks, as well as opaque management decisions at the University of Galway.

For instance, records from the deemed refusal FoIA could show that while there was an early plan to ‘remap’ amalgamated pay-disparaged lecturers to the new scale, management scrapped it when reality hit and the budget implications of offering dozens of lecturers significant pay raises across already cash-strapped colleges arose.

Implications

Whatever the case, University of Galway’s management seemingly pulled the ‘remapping’ plan, and in doing so, they left no formal path or acceptable policies for their existing staff who remain on the older pay scales, thus denying them the fair opportunity to easily transition to the new, higher-paying amalgamated pay scale.

The university management’s refusal to offer a transparent, formalised, and fair resolution, combined with their deeply concerning lack of response to information requests raises suspicions of deliberate obfuscation. The situation, at least as it currently stands, represents an unprecedented act of group discrimination by a tertiary institution in modern Ireland.

Until the matter is resolved on a collective level and achieved through a fair, transparent, and direct ‘remapping’ process, the university is responsible for an unprecedented act of pay discrimination by failing to ensure pay equality for staff who perform the same job.

The university’s management forcing aggrieved, pay-discriminated lecturers to work harder to ‘earn the right to the same pay’, discriminated staff voluntarily must jump through hoops, submitting a portfolio of application materials to human resources, who then hand off the application packet to staff in their college, who make the individual walk a tightrope in an effectively deprecated, peer-governed ‘progressional’ process to go ‘across the bar’ (*they can only go to ‘Step 1’ of the old ‘Above the Bar’ scale because of legacy policy limitations in the progression policy).

In terms of a resolution to a mass act of pay discrimination, this is simply egregious. Staff who are already being discriminated against, some by tens of thousands per year, must ‘earn the right to equal pay’.

Final Thoughts

Reports published by the Higher Education Authority (HEA) on the gender pay gap in Irish universities show that while strides are being made to close the gap, considerable disparities persist.

However, the problem has been long been framed in terms of the most senior roles, including promotion to professor and senior lecturer/associate professor.

This time around, however — and in 2023, no less — the University of Galway has taken the war against pay equity to their largest and most important contingent of their academic staff — every lecturer — in favour of a trove of funding that allowed them to recruit new staff on a higher salary scale.

As a result, the restructuring of lecturer salaries to a unified scale without proper diligence created a ‘three-tier’ system, and one that perpetuates pay inequality on a structural level. Existing lecturers were not only excluded from accessing the new scale and denied equivalent pay, they were left without a transparent, fair, and ethical renumeration process, and now must earn the right to fair pay by going through a promotion-esque review process. Is it legal? I will leave that for the experts to decide.

The University of Galway’s pay anomalies reflect the broader pattern within Irish academia — a pattern that is perpetuated by opaque decision-making processes, ineffective, complex, and redundant policies, and nebulous advancement criteria.

#previous story — data analysis of academic pay in Ireland

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Jonathan Albright

Professor/researcher. Award-nominated data journalist. Media, data, & tech frmly #columbiajournalism #towcenter #berkmanklein #elonuniversity