The demographics of Oxbridge are regularly discussed in the media. Are sufficient numbers of state school students being admitted? Are ethnic minorities proportionally represented? Is there sufficient diversity? But there is far less discussion about whether equity of opportunity extends to Oxbridge staff, and the implications this could have on the quality of teaching and research.
Having been educated and now employed in the Oxbridge system, I know there are at least some opportunities for academics with unconventional backgrounds. I was the first member of my family to attend university, so my path to Oxbridge was somewhat unusual. But there are growing numbers like me; I regularly meet young academics from humble beginnings, who have broken through the 800-year-old glass ceiling into competitive academic and managerial posts.
We have overcome many obstacles to achieve faculty positions here. But I wish someone had informed us that the challenge was not getting in, but actually sustaining a life at Cambridge or Oxford.
After many years of misjudged optimism, I no longer believe that early-career positions at Oxbridge universities are viable for individuals without independent financial means. There are three key factors that have led me to this decision:
I can think of few professions where you are financially penalised for securing a job at the most prestigious employer in your sector, but this is the case at Oxbridge universities. Compared with staff at other English Russell Group universities, Oxbridge academics are paid rather poorly. The average non-professorial academic salary for all universities in the UK is £48,460 (pdf); for English Russell Group universities this figure is £50,000 (or £54,000 if you restrict to the London Russell Group). Yet the median non-professorial academic salary at Oxbridge is £45,000.
I am not arguing that we deserve higher pay than our Russell Group peers, but I do question why our salaries dip so far below those paid by other institutions, especially given the combined wealth and success of the Oxbridge institutions.
Cost of living
Few academics are called to the profession by a dream of becoming wealthy. That does not mean, however, that we are prepared to be impoverished by it. Although it is well known that Cambridge and Oxford are almost as costly as London when it comes to buying and letting property, only London salaries account for the significant costs of living in one of the UK’s most expensive cities.
According to figures from the Office for National Statistics, in 2014 the average house prices in other English Russell Group cities ranged between three and four times the local median academic salary in each city. For Cambridge and Oxford this figure ranged between 6.8 and 7.7 times the median academic salary at Oxbridge universities – equivalent with London.
As anyone who knows anything about mortgages will tell you, this makes buying a house on a typical Oxbridge academic salary impossible without a considerable down payment. Aspiring to own your home is further complicated by the exorbitant price of rent – when bills and other unavoidable expenses are added to the cost of my modest accommodation, just keeping my bank balance in the black is a considerable challenge.
Oxbridge academic positions come with extremely high expectations. World-leading research, inspirational teaching, big-money grants, frequent high-impact publications and effective administration are not aspirations but conditions for promotion. To be an academic is to have a collection of jobs, all of which you are expected to excel at.
This opportunity does not exist for many young academics, whose responsibilities encroach on their evenings and weekends — there is no option to top up earnings in your spare time.
Addenbrookes hospital in Cambridge was placed in special measures earlier this year as a result of serious staff shortages, which some have suggested could be a knock-on effect of spiralling living costs. As basic services fail in Cambridge and Oxford, so too will their ability to attract and retain young academic superstars. These universities will need to find a way to ease the strain if they hope to compete with international institutions and the London schools.
The Oxbridge name does open many doors but other opportunities, like home ownership and quality family time, are closed to me as long as I am here. In years gone by, a young academic with a permanent contract at one of these institutions could look forward to a financially comfortable life and a fulfilling Oxbridge career.
But this is no longer the case, as both cities have become expensive to the point of being unliveable and salaries have not kept pace. Junior academics, like junior doctors, are now looking abroad for employment opportunities — where academic salaries are higher and living costs more manageable.
My advice to talented young academics and scientists is to look elsewhere at this early stage of your career. Oxbridge is an attractive brand, but how much can you afford to pay for it?