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College accountants lack higher rewards

Accountancy a licence to print money? You can probably hear the hollow laughter among finance staff in FE colleges, who remain the sector's poor relations.

A new survey of comparative salaries shows that FE personnel, from finance directors to ledger clerks, still lag behind their equivalents in higher education.

As a result, it is not easy to find good people. "We encounter a lot of unrealistic salary ranges," said Sharon Burns, business director of recruitment agency Hays.

"We often find ourselves telling that to colleges and advising them to benchmark with the market. Offering added responsibility can help."

According to Hays, the national average for an HE finance director is pound;68,000 - a 4.8 rise in the last six months - whereas their counterpart in FE can expect just over pound;54,000, a 2.2 per cent increase. At the lowest level, the typical salary for an FE ledger clerk is pound;14,033 compared with pound;14,388 in HE.

Unsurprisingly, the highest salaries are in central London: pound;85,000 for a finance director in HE, pound;70,000 for one in FE.

However, one middle management band did fare better in FE:the average for accountants in their last year of training (finalists) was pound;24,740 compared with pound;24,233 in HE.

Northern Ireland, where most institutions are smaller and the cost of living usually lower, was consistently bottom of the heap: pound;37,000 for finance directors in both FE and HE and pound;12,000 for ledger clerks.

The arguments will go on about who is worth more. "Turnover of an average size HE institution is around pound;100 million and only a few major colleges can match that," said Ms Burns.

But that does not make the job of FE finance staff any less demanding, thanks largely to complex and unpredictable funding mechanisms during the years since incorporation.

"Colleges have to justify themselves internally more than other organisations," Ms Burns said.

She believes that FE could be missing a trick by not offering greater incentives for senior personnel.

"If you keep having to advertise and go through the interview process that can cost between pound;20,000 to pound;30,000," she said.

"It's more cost-effective to increase the salary by pound;5,000 to pound;8,000." But she admits there is a risk of internal conflict where finance specialists are paid more than other senior managers.

Colleges may do themselves a disfavour by playing safe and recruiting from within the sector.

"So long as an outsider has the technical skills, we find the learning curve lasts just three to six months," said Ms Burns.

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