On Campus

Calculating a fair wage for striking UNB professors

Prof. Pettigrew on how best to compare salaries

UNB (Blazingluke/Wikimedia Commons)

The faculty strike at the University of New Brunswick is dragging on into its second week, and, as is so often the case, money remains the sticking point. Faculty insist that their salary demands are reasonable, but are they?

So far, cooler heads have not prevailed. An outspoken professor has denounced her colleagues as childish and unconcerned about students while faculty and administration spun their own narratives with videos and other materials designed to sway public opinion.

So how do we calculate what is really reasonable?

One way that is not reasonable is to compare university faculty salaries to average salaries in general. University faculty in Canada typically earn a four-year undergraduate degree, followed by a Master’s degree, and then a PhD, a process that can easily take over a decade, and that’s not counting the additional years of post-doctoral fellowships, part-time jobs, or limited-term appointments normally required before one finds a tenure-track job. If a tenure-track job is available at all. I didn’t find a tenure-track job until I was 30 and that was considered very young. Many don’t find tenure-track jobs until well into their forties. So to say that UNB profs earn more than the average New Brunswick family (which pulls in about $64,000 a year, according to StatsCan) is meaningless, since the comparison isn’t among comparable jobs.

Indeed, if we compare professors’ salaries to non-professors’, it would make sense to compare them to professionals with similar levels of training. The average doctor in New Brunswick earns over $272,000 a year. In fairness, doctors have to subtract overhead costs from those numbers, so the precise pay is never clear, but credible reports peg the national average for physicians at between $225,000 to $248,000 per year. The average professor at UNB doesn’t earn half that.

Of course, most people would say that physicians are inherently more vital than professors. To this one could reply that education levels have been shown to be a key determinant of health but I’ll concede the point.

What’s left is to compare professors’ salaries to those of other professors. And, in fact, most faculty associations make their claims this way. The problem then becomes which universities offer a fair comparison? At Cape Breton University, where I work, it’s easy to find a favourable comparison, because we generally make less than they do at other Nova Scotia universities. But if you are at a higher paid Nova Scotia university (Saint Mary’s for example), you can simply say that you are a national-calibre university and you need to be paid similarly to other Canadian schools. And if you are a top Canadian school, you argue that you are competing internationally for students and faculty and so on. In short, a clever faculty association can always find a comparison to justify its salary claims. No professors’ union ever entered a negotiation saying, you know, if anything, we are over-paid.

So, what are reasonable points of comparison for UNB? Well, one fairly objective comparison would simply be to compare UNB salaries to all those across the country.

According to the CAUT almanac (the source of all the following salary figures), the average salary of a Canadian university professor—including all ranks—is $112,578. At UNB, the average salary of all ranks is $102,144. That puts UNB at about nine per cent behind the national average. Not great, but not terrible either. After all, it is impossible, by definition, for everyone to be above the average.

But an overall national average may not be the ideal comparison, since institutional salaries tend to vary by the type of institution. But here things get even murkier, since not all universities are funded equally. It seems unfair to expect UNB to pay its faculty members more than in other provinces if they are not receiving funding comparable to the other provinces. Of course, profs in some provinces might have a beef with their provincial governments, but that’s a separate matter. The obvious comparison, then, is within New Brunswick itself, where UNB profs are paid just slightly better than their colleagues at Mount Allison University and the University of Moncton.

But that’s a small sample. So, what of other provinces? Still following the basic line of thinking that links fair salaries to overall revenues, I calculated the per capita funding of various provincial systems, and found that New Brunswick is among the lowest, nearly tied with last-place Manitoba.

So how do UNB faculties compare with those in Manitoba? Pretty close, actually. The average salary at the U of M is $106,278, about four percent above UNB. And compared to the University of Winnipeg, which is closer in size to UNB (all enrollment numbers are based on AUCC stats), the maritimers are doing well, about 15 per cent above those prairie colleagues.

Ontario and B.C. are the next closest in terms of per capita funding, but I’m leaving out B.C. because the similar-sized universities there recently changed from university-colleges, so I’m not convinced that they make a fair comparison. That leaves us with the Ontario schools closest in size to UNB, which are Laurentian and Lakehead. Lakehead’s salaries are about 10 per cent above UNB’s and Laurentians are about 17 percent ahead.

To sum up, the faculty at UNB have a reasonable case for, at least, modest raises. They are about even with their colleagues at home and in similarly-funded Manitoba, a fair bit behind their colleagues nationwide and well behind their friends in (slightly-better-funded) Ontario.

All of this, necessarily, simplifies things, and of course, there are complexities that can’t be dealt with in a single blog entry. Still, my analysis convinces me that the UNB administration and faculty ought to be able to bridge this significant but not overwhelming gap. Let’s hope that reason and goodwill prevail over name-calling and spin-doctoring.

Todd Pettigrew is an associate professor of English at Cape Breton University.

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