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.


Calculating a fair wage for striking UNB professors

  1. Nice article. One nitpick.

    “After all, it is impossible, by definition, for everyone to be at the average.”

    I imagine you meant to write “it is impossible for everyone to be above the average.” Everyone exactly at the average is quite possible.

    • Thanks for pointing that out. The article has been updated.

    • Dave is right, of course, since I said “by definition.” Better might have been to say that, as a matter of practical and arithmetical reality, it’s unrealistic to expect everyone to be at the average at any given time. Move one below-average faculty association up to the average and the average increases, quite possibly moving another association below the average.

      So when faculty speak of seeking “parity” they should talk about being within a reasonable range of the average, rather than at a particular average.

  2. As a recent graduate from UNB’s Fredericton Campus I find it interesting that they decided to strike half way through the academic year instead of summer when most students would not be affected by the strike.

    One of my friends , currently attending this school, said her student loan funding is being withheld. How many students will this affect? who is going to help them pay their rent, buy groceries and pay bills while they continue to strike for more money?

    UNB’s history deparment has some of the best professors I know however, if it wasn’t for the paying students none of them would even have a job.

    • I’m sure that the admin will be in a great rush to settle if they strike in the summer.
      Did you actually graduate?

    • Striking in the summer? That’s an absurd proposition. A strike only works if you have leverage.

    • Barb, 1) AUNBT and the university have been negotiating since LAST summer. The university has had plenty of time to sort this out and has chosen not to. This is why we are in this situation. 2) There is absolutely no reason at all that the “withholding” of your friend’s student loan documents would have anything at all to do with the current job action. The university has repeatedly assured students that all non-academic services, including financial services, are operating. Your suggestion that job action is preventing any student from “buying groceries” is an outright lie. If tour friend’s loan documents are “withheld” it is likely his/her own darn fault.

  3. Dear Prof. Pettigrew,
    I read with interest your article on wage calculations. I do have a question if I may: As you contend that selecting a comparator is not an easy matter, and since the UNB administration and AUNBT have agreed to a group of 14 comprehensive universities for the sake of comparison, and that group is in their Collective Agreement, how would you justify or convince one party or the other to actually negotiate using a different group?
    Thank you

    • M, I would justify it on the grounds that the so-called agreed upon group has clearly not been very helpful.

  4. I have no idea how UNB’s education compares to other universities. I also have no idea how much UNB contributes to the world in the form of research, innovation, etc. What I do know:
    – I’d be very happy to make 3 figures.
    – If you want money, you gotta make money. Attract more students and corporations with your product, and i’m sure salaries would go up.
    – It is less expensive to live in NB. Period. You do not need the same salary as a Toronto dwelling PhD. Trust me, Toronto is not the only expensive housing market in Canada.
    This is merely to reinforce your point. You can’t compare UNB with most universities, because location/cost of living is a huge factor. Most should be happy to even be within the range of other universities.

    • As a resident of Fredericton, I was thinking the same thing about cost of living since our housing costs are certainly lower than in a place like Toronto. But then I had a conversation with someone who has lived elsewhere and pointed out, quite rightly, that the actual cost to buy a house is the only cost that is lower here — our property taxes are higher (the property tax on our $300,000 house is more than my in-laws paid on their ~$600,000 house in Ontario ten years ago!), groceries cost more, gas costs more, we don’t have nearly as many provincial subsidies for upgrading heating systems etc. By the way, we spend about a month in Ontario each summer, so I know what I’m talking about regarding grocery and fuel costs. We even spend more money on clothing and other consumer goods because we have very little competition, which results in very few sales (so we do a lot of shopping when we’re in Ontario). There is a much smaller market for used cars, etc, so they cost more. Oh, and restaurants! My goodness, restaurants are SO much more expensive in New Brunswick. So I’m not at all convinced that our total cost of living is any lower.

    • “Cost of living” is a bit of a misnomer, especially when used to evaluate how expensive it is to reside in New Brunswick.

      For one, we have among the highest HST amounts in Canada, particularly higher than some of the provinces of comparable universities.

      Secondly, we have the absurd regulations on vehicle inspections. Most residents of NB will agree that they pay high prices to have their vehicles “pass” these inspections. Upwards of $500 yearly is a healthy average. These are also uncommon across Canada.

      Thirdly, life staples such as dairy products, gasoline, meat, and eggs etc. cost more. Not only more however, but needlessly more, especially compared to both our proximity of these resources such as oil refineries and farms, and the costs of these important staples in other areas with a similar proximity.

      Ask anyone who lives in New Brunswick: insurance, health costs, universal fees, all of these are higher, especially in comparison to the averages wages of most middle class residents. Illnesses and health issues such as Autism, Crohn’s Disease, injuries from vehicular accidents, are all more common in New Brunswick. We have one of the highest rates of Crohn’s Disease in the country, and that costs money to deal with.

      New Brunswick is a poor province for a reason.

      If the AUNBT union is able to successfully negotiate for higher wages so will other unions be able to, and that will be better for everyone across this province.

      • I understand why the faculty is striking at UNB. I understand the issues just fine. As a student who is near completion of my degree, I think it is sad that this has had to happen. Students just want to graduate. We have job prospects waiting on us that require us to have our degrees. Will the university pay our tuition AND our potential salaries/benefits if, because of their mismanagement, we lose our lined up positions? I think they should have to, because it is simply not fair to play with the futures of their students in this manner. I truly think that the student body needs to initiate a law suit against the university. We should sue for tuition reduction (we are being told that we will have to pay full tuition for the semester–though not right away–when we have not received full instruction. This is unfair), for loss of wages and benefits if students can prove that they had an offer of employment that fell through due to being unable to graduate in a timely manner, and for tuition remittance if, because of the strike, students close to graduation are forced to return for subsequent semesters. We should not have to pay for another semester or another year because we did not ask to stay longer at university; it was forced upon us.

        I know everyone loves unions and supporting the working person. That’s fine. But, while you’re supporting professors and librarians, please realize that you are hamstringing the future workers of the world and it is not fair to students who will be burdened with even more debt because they will most likely have to stay at school longer, which will negatively affect young peoples lives and futures just because two groups of working adults who make good money cannot agree upon how much more money they’d like to make.

        It is truly ludicrous. I will be talking with my fellow students and exploring the legal options of suing UNB.

  5. H i my son is now in his first year at UNB taking a dual degree BA and BSC, he is in residence and nothing has changed in that regard. He has pre arranged assignents he is working on which will be completed leaving him time to catch up when the professors come back to work. If both sides would use the same thought process the students are using the strike would be over now.Hopefully UNB and the facualty can take a lesson from their students.

    • I would hazard to guess that the reason your son has prearranged assignments to work on is because of concerned and committed professors. Our students have unfortunately had to learn that university admin can misinform and sell them a term of school with no professors to teach it (the contract expired in July).

  6. Thanks for the article – I have looked at the comparison groups being used so far and found them to be a bit of an unrealistic yardstick for measuring – it’s nice to see someone offering up practical alternatives. I definitely agree with the previous comment, that the significant differences in cost of living across the province should also be a relevant factor in choosing a fair comparator group, along with the considerations you suggested, including per capita government funding. The fact that they are already being paid more than their colleagues at other universities in NB does make it seem that perhaps the level of increase they are requesting is slightly unreasonable.

    Perhaps it is the low level of per capita funding provided by the government that we should all be protesting?

    I know it is unfair to compare professor salaries to the salaries of other working New Brunswickers – your point about the long investment in education is well made. I do think, however, that the current economic situation in NB and the fact that so many families are having to pick up and leave makes it tougher for many in the public to get behind the professors. Many find it difficult to feel sympathy for someone making six figures, even if it is well-deserved (which in most cases I think it is).

    • Don’t forget that only the top tier of professors make over $100,000 — the majority are making far less. And see my reply to Andrew about the cost of living in New Brunswick not actually being so low.

  7. A refreshing look for a change.

    A personal comment…

    I have to say though, I’m really not a fan of the concept that because people go to school for X years and go into debt that they deserve a higher salary. It’s a life choice one makes, and base salaries in society should not be contingent on how much schooling and debt people incur for that schooling.

    • The schooling is not optional. It’s required. Most professors must have 3 degrees and 10 to 15 years of education.

    • Len,
      Are you really arguing that the amount of education required to do a job should not affect the salary?

      • It already doesn’t work that way in society.

        CEOs make millions. Many don’t have any or very little education.
        police. Fire. MLAs. Governemnt workers. Nb power linesmen
        Lepreau operators do two years max of school yet make more than profs.

        Then there’s the other side of the coin. People that do PhDs and don’t become professors that end up in nowhere jobs making nowhere money because a phd in degree X means nothing. Highly educated, according to you they should get paid 100k no matter what they end up doing.

        The reality is, yes there are some profs that probably deserve 100k. But any universoty doesn’t need many of these. You don’t need someone with two PhDs teaching basic accounting. That’s just such a waste of money. You really don’t even need someone with a BBA doing it. A real world professional who has been an accountant for a number of years is probably a much better choice to teach it and at a fraction of the cost.

        I was reading a fiction book this morning. Not very good of a book. Despite the author having a phd in English. I don’t think he’s doing so well in getting that 100k salary despite his education. Anyway, there was an excellent point in the book. A new mother who’s a geologist talks about the difference between intellectual smart and experience smart, and how there is a world of difference between the two. She had read every parenting book and new everything she was supposed to do, yet it wasn’t until she got experience with the kid did she become smart about kids. Same thing about the geological challenge in the book. An excellent observation, often overlooked.

    • It’s not the debt incurred that people consider when deciding base salaries. They get paid more because of the relatively rare and valuable skill set that took them 6 or more years to acquire.

  8. Todd,
    A coupe of points.

    1) who teaches those doctors & lawyers that you compare us to? WE DO! If the q

    • UNB prof,

      We understand you teach those Doctors and Lawyers. I think a lot of people in the province think that a fair and modest wage increase is needed, as the cost of living rises everyday! But do you actually think they can afford to bring you up to the national average or bring you closer to that average and not go in debt?!

      Don’t forget, cost of living is reasonably fair here compared to across Canada.

      I think it will be awhile until this one is settled. Looks good on UNB in my opinion and feel they did just right.

  9. Todd,

    A couple of questions.

    1) Who teaches those doctors/nurses/lawyers/etc.? We do. Shouldn’t we care about the quality of the professors in that case?
    2) Do you consider that your work at CBU is worth less than that of your colleague at U of T?
    3) Comparing UNB to U of Winnipeg is not a fair comparison. Winnipeg does not have the graduate programs UNB has. It is primarily an undergraduate university.


  10. Thank you so much for your article.
    I feel a modest raise is needed for UNB professors. I however do not think that bringing them up to the national average is fair. It is unrealistic and unaffordable. I believe they sit at a comfortable average for a New Brunswick University.
    Let’s not forget that cost of living in NB is considerably lower then the western provinces as well.
    Let’s be fair and realistic.

  11. UNB Prof,

    In regards to your #1. Yes of course professors teach those doctors and lawyers. But what you’re implying is that this is all those doctors and lawyers get for education. Which would mean they are only as smart and knowledgeable as their profs,

    I think we can all agree this is not true.

    I know that when I attended university, I learnt more on my own and through additional readings than any prof taught me, they were there as guides. To show me direction, and provide guidance in what I needed to learn. It was me that spent hours in the lab pouring over books and formulas figuring out how to do something. It wasn’t taught or given to me by a prof. They provided the problem, I needed to find the answers, they never gave answers,

    You know, that whole critical thinking thing that is 25-75 percent of mark on every syllabus.

    So yes, profs need to be competent. They need to be good. But they certainly don’t need to be the best. In actuality, that’s a great waste. If a prof, say one teaching a doctor is the best, they’d probably be better served being the doctor for society.

    For 90percent of my undergrad classes, I personally knew a couple dozen people in the private sector that would have been just as good teaching the course and for much cheaper, but yet just as efficient.

    I’m not trying to belittle prof contribution. It’s good. It’s just not worth 100k in the vast majority of needs/situations. The money could be better spent in the actual cases where the best is needed, and the vast majority of undergrad classes can be done muh cheaper and just as well with not overpaid,over qualified profs.

  12. The issues of professors’ salaries are more than what one needs to get by on, but what professors are worth to our society. Professors are the people responsible for higher education including training engineers, lawyers, nurses, teachers, etc. However beyond that they are the knowledge link of the province to rest of the world. They bring in new ideas and innovation that is a key factor for generating economic prosperity badly needed in New Brunswick. They are the cornerstone of an innovative community that is driving a knowledge economy that is growing in Fredericton and the province. An economic impact assessment of UNB prepared by Gardner Pinfold in 2011 (http://www.unb.ca/president/_resources/UNBEIA.pdf) indicated that UNB brings in an average of $35.5M of research grant funding per year. These funds are awarded on a competitive basis and require top-notch professors for success. This is not to mention the positive economic impacts of a university- educated population. UNB is the largest research institution in the province. If there is any investment that the province can make to bring in a positive return to the economy it would be towards maintaining the national standard in UNB faculty salaries. Reducing the capacity to recruit and maintain the best people at the province’s only comprehensive university is to our doom.

    • I certainly agree with Fred, that it is important that we allow our University to recruit top-notch professors, and that the current financial situation at UNB puts a strain on that. However, from what I can see, a lot of the gap is explained by the low level of per capita funding the University is receiving from government. It does seem very difficult for the University as currently funded to handle the raises that the professors consider necessary to achieve this goal.

  13. What Len and others don’t seem to understand is that profs don’t just teach. They conduct research that leads to innovation in society. I read somewhere recently (it might even have been Macleans) that the majority of new innovations come from university labs and NOT the private sector. Yet, the private sector often derives benefits from these innovations. So, the analysis that courses can be taught more cheaply by using people from the private sector is false. And it is precisely in the areas of innovation and research that you really DO need the best profs. Universities do not compete in a local market. They compete in a national or global market. If you want UNB to be an OK school with decent teachers, but not much else, then that is one goal. If you want it to be a leading institution, that requires a different approach.

    One of the reasons that professorial salaries are so much higher in professional programs is precisely because universities are competing with the private sector for this talent. This is particularly true in business, engineering, computer science, and a host of other disciplines. Len cites the example of PhDs who are in low paying, dead end jobs, but ignores the fact that many PhDs never go into academia because the lure of the private sector with very high paying jobs is so strong.

    Yet another falsehood perpetrated by many (although recognized by a few here) is that the cost of living is lower in New Brunswick than in other jurisdictions. Although this may be true of housing prices, there are many, many things that are more expensive. I am from New Brunswick, but currently live in Ontario. In N.B., you have higher property taxes, higher income taxes, higher transportation costs, higher food costs…..the list goes on.

    Bottom line…a lot of people who comment on the issue have no real idea how a university truly functions. If they did, they might think differently on the issue. The issue facing UNB faculty is that asking for a 25% raise (or whatever the numbers are) is bad PR and bad optics given the state of the economy. The administration has successfully framed the public discussion in their favour while hiding the fact that administrative costs are what are truly ballooning out of control.

  14. As a UNB staffer I see nothing wrong with the opening salary demands of faculty. I am annoyed by the typical spin arguments comparing faculty salary to the New Brunswick average. It is a false equivalence and is only intended to skew perceptions. I am also annoyed, but not surprised, by the reaction of government officials. All of the interviews I have listened to have used the same talking points, primarily, professors should accept what the taxpayer is willing to pay to fund the institution and in this economic climate taxpayer priority is not on education. Well as a taxpayer my priority IS on education and not on handing out unsecured or forgivable loans to any business that dangles the carrot of job creation in front of your face.

    This job action should prod the appropriate authorities to examine the compensation of the executive at UNB. In the years since 2009 overall enrollment has declined, yet in that same time period the top of the presidents pay range has increased by $100,000. When we were first introduced to our current president, Mr. Campbell, he stated in his list of business platitudes that increasing enrollment is one of his top priorities. Clearly he is under performing in this regard. Yet our executive continues to defend their ridiculous compensation with the old executive chestnut of paying top dollar for top talent. There is little research to back that claim, at best it is unproven. When the same argument is offered by faculty it is rejected out of hand. Between the reputation of faculty and the reputation of the administration I believe that it is the former that will attract the most to our campus and therefore are more deserving of investment.

    The resource of the university is the faculty. They attract students and research dollars. The message you are sending by underfunding that resource is that UNB is a school of last resort.

    As a final note, and as an example of the mentality of the administration, we are currently spending thousands of dollars to have private security people stand at the gates to film and interview anyone interacting with picketers. I politely told them to mind their business, this isn’t America. Who approved that budget item?

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