The Economic Struggle of Public-University Professors

/ 05 Feb 2015

The Economic Struggle of Public-University Professors

Fed up and disappointed, Akram Khalifa left a job teaching English literature at Tunisia’s University of Manouba. Struggling to get by financially on his salary of $685 a month, he says he was forced to juggle two to three side jobs as a tour guide and translator.

While Khalifa left academia after four years, many other academics in the public universities in the Middle East and North Africa region continue to grapple with low salaries, multiple jobs, and a lack of research funding.

Professors at public universities are responsible for shaping the thinking and knowledge of the vast majority of Arab youth. But in many countries, the professors have little economic motivation to take up this important profession or to stay in it. This, say policymakers and observers, is having a visceral, negative impact on the region’s public universities.

“There is no doubt about that, it’s a very old problem that goes back decades,” says John Waterbury, a political-science professor at New York University Abu Dhabi, and former president of the American University of Beirut, who has been studying flagship public universities in the Arab world.

The low salaries, for some professors, lead to a punching-the-clock syndrome, Waterbury says: “The professor shows up, and does the minimum necessary to fulfil his duties.” Many professors fulfill light teaching loads in a single semester, and then go to private universities in another semester. They become ghosts at their home institutions. As a result, says Waterbury, they “are not there to advise students, and not there to participate in academic life in any way.”

The situation varies widely among Arab countries of course, both in terms of pay levels and government controls on moonlighting. But data collected by Al-Fanar Media indicates that salaries aren’t high enough in many Arab countries, with the exception of the Gulf and Lebanon, to let many professors rise up to a middle-class life. (See related article, A Survey of Public University Professors’ Pay.) As a result, academics seek employment in the private sector or move to countries where the pay is better. The loss of the most-qualified professors from public universities also results in a dive in the quality of instruction, to the detriment of the students at the public institutions.

According to the Center for Quality Assurance at Cairo University, of 10,323 regular faculty members at the university, 2,000 were absent—with many of them probably working in the Gulf. “Once you get tenure, you can’t be fired, and can take leave indefinitely,” said Waterbury. So many professors strive to get tenure and then head off to the Gulf, to earn four to five times what they get in Egypt, and then, when they are very senior, return to their positions. “There are not adequate controls on this,” he said, “and what controls there are aren’t applied with any rigor.”

Many Arab public universities, being state institutions, and often plagued by a deeply entrenched bureaucracy, inflexible regulations, and government control, are not in a position to change the employment conditions of faculty members.

(Photo by Ahmed Abd El Latif)

(Photo by Ahmed Abd El Latif)

Take Egypt, which has the largest public universities in the region. After the long-time dictator, Hosni Mubarak, was ousted in 2011, the promise of reform was heady. The salaries of public university professors were doubled to 7,000 Egyptian pounds monthly ($1,014) last year.

Critics called it a lost opportunity. Instead of an across-the-board increase, Egyptian officials should have used the pay raises as leverage to demand better performance, say some observers. Those professors who don’t show up for classes, or who don’t show up on time, or who milk their students for extra tutoring charges, as many students complain, could have gone without the raise. Likewise, those professors who do widely cited research, who teach well, or who put in extra hours serving the institution could be paid more.

Islam Ramdan, an English literature student at Al-Azhar University in Cairo, said that because salaries at the public institution are low compared to private universities such as American University in Cairo, some professors who are teaching at both universities focus more on their better-paid work. There is no strict system at the public universities that requires professors to attend their lectures, he said. “There is a professor who I see only twice per term,” said Ramdan. “He is also teaching at the American University of Cairo—he is an excellent professor, so I go and pay at the AUC in order to attend his lectures.”

Ibrahim Abdel Tawab, a student of engineering at Mansoura University in the Nile Delta expressed bitterness over the practices of professors to extract income from their students.

“The most important thing for the professor is to buy his book, once you do that, there is an opportunity if you study hard, to succeed,” he said. “Otherwise, no matter how hard you study, you will never succeed in the exam if you do not buy his book.”

But Egyptian professors have a different perspective on their struggle to get income.

“The low salary of faculty members is one of the main reasons behind the decline of the quality of higher education in Egypt,” said Mohamed Mahsob, an associate professor of geology at Ain Shams University in Cairo. “Most professors are preoccupied with other jobs, so they do not have time to communicate with students after class. In addition, they do not have the time to improve their teaching.”

The most common part-time jobs for professors are as consultants in the private sector, he said, while teaching assistants often work as private tutors. Some, like Ahmed Ali, an associate professor of commerce in the University of Suez, have their own businesses.

“I did not have an option,” said Ali, who recently opened a small accounting office. “I spend much of my salary on research on marketing as I am trying to participate in conferences as much as possible to improve my academic capacity. That is really putting me in a difficult financial position.”

Elsewhere in the Arab world, in Jordan and more recently Lebanon, authorities have forbidden public university professors from moonlighting. But there are ways around this, said Mohamed Musmar, former vice president of Hashemite University in Jordan.

“Many academics spend their sabbaticals teaching abroad to earn some extra money instead of doing research, or move there to work altogether,” said Musmar. “Professors’ wages at public universities are higher than most other jobs in the public sector but this does not mean it’s a good wage.”

A lecturer at the University of Jordan said her salary of $1,400 a month has gone up from the meager $850 a month she earned when she first started four years ago. It’s not bad, she says, but work in the private sector would have been more lucrative.

“If I were to start off as an international school teacher here, I would be making more money—triple—I would be starting off with at least $42,000 a year,” she said.

(Photo by Ahmed Abd El Latif)

(Photo by Ahmed Abd El Latif)

Still, many academics like her say they feel committed to the public universities after having received postgraduate government scholarships. Despite not thinking the salaries are “particularly fair,” she says she “wanted to serve.”

The Jordanian government is trying to offset the low salaries by providing other benefits to compensate professors, says Mustafa Al-Adwan, the secretary general of the Ministry of Higher Education and Scientific Research. These include health insurance, university housing, low-interest loans, retirement benefits and preferential acceptance of professors’ children in public universities.

In Lebanon, where the cost of living is relatively high compared to the rest of the region, professors at the country’s only public higher-education institution, Lebanese University, received a raise in the past few years. Still, some wonder if it will be enough.

The combination of raises for those who work at Lebanese University, the only public university in Lebanon, and controls on moonlighting may still result in professors’ net income going down, says Waterbury. The bottom end of the salary scale is as low as $30,000 annually, only two-thirds of the estimated cost of living for a middle-class couple with no children in Beirut. Even so, the majority of professors earn enough to exceed the threshold for being in the middle class.

Ahmad Jammal, director-general for higher education at the Lebanese Ministry for Education and Higher Education disagrees. “Financially, our public university professors do quite well,” he said. “The problem of academic recruitment does not tend to be financial. It is that the number of students is not growing, and it is hard to secure spots for new incoming professors.”

In Libya, some academics said they needed to work outside their universities in order to earn enough—the law allows eight hours of moonlighting—but others expressed satisfaction at their compensation levels. “The salary is enough,” said Ahmad Asaad Masoudi, a lecturer and deputy dean of Faculty of Law at Tripoli University. “As a result, we do not need to work at any other university.”

Yemen is a different story. Although it is illegal for professors in public universities to work simultaneously at the private universities, the continued chaos in the country and the extreme need of private universities for teaching staff lure many public-university professors to teach at those institutions for an hourly wage. As a result, the nine public universities in Yemen find themselves having to compete with the 32 private institutions that have blossomed in recent years.

Academics in Yemen say there have been regular protests for higher wages and pressure for action on a government plan to increase salaries that was approved in 2007.

(Photo by Ahmed Abd El Latif)

(Photo by Ahmed Abd El Latif)

“Professors’ wages are very meager, not enough to secure the basics of everyday life,” said Ahmed Al-aijl, former dean of the information department at the University of Sana’a and currently a professor there. “Most of Yemeni professors migrate whenever they have an opportunity.”

In Iraq, the government that has been free of Saddam Hussein for 10 years has blessed professors with improved pay, said Nazar Mohammad, a professor of psychiatry and vice president for scientific affairs and postgraduate studies at the University of Sulaymaniyah in the Kurdistan region of Iraq.
Before 2003, Mohammad earned just $50-60 per month. The 1990s, when Iraq was restricted by economic sanctions was a “very hard time,” he said. After 37 years, he makes more than $5,000 a month, which includes a special payment for working in hospitals with high exposure to infection.

“I don’t think there is anything bad with the salaries [of public university professors in Iraq]—if somebody wants to live in a normal way then I’m sure the money is enough and one is able to set something aside for retirement,” said Mohammad.

Still, at the University of Baghdad, an assistant professor who prefers to remain anonymous struggles to pay the bills. She works 9-10 hours a day, five days a week and makes $1,500 per month.

“I work in the university but the rent of our house is very high and it takes a lot of money from my salary,” she said, noting that rent costs just over $600 per month, and that she is barred from working outside of the university. “I have a family of seven with children in college and I must pay for all of them.”

In the end, experts say, those who are responsible for the education of much of the Arab world’s next generation are often a demoralized lot. The solutions to improving their salaries and working conditions are not obvious but may involve reducing any possible drag that corruption might have, more selective admissions to reduce student populations, and increasing administrative efficiencies.

“The outlays on education in the region are very high – 20 to 25 percent of total public outlays,” said Waterbury. “They are not getting value for their dollars. The solution is not to throw more money at it – that is unrealistic. They have to find a way to use the resources more efficiently.”

See also the related articles “A Survey of Arab Public University Professors’ Pay,” and “Graphic and FAQS:Arab Public-University Salaries,” and “Employment in the Gulf: Not Always What it Seems.

Editor’s note: This article, and two related ones, are the result of countless interviews and reporting by journalists throughout the region. The journalists’ names are at the bottom of the story.  Associated Reporters Abroad, a group that has kept the tradition of international journalism alive at a time when many news organizations are retreating from it, has also provided invaluable assistance in coordinating the work, compiling and checking numbers, and early editing. Final responsibility for the articles rests with Al-Fanar Media.

Contributing to this report:
Egypt: Mohamed Mahmoud, Sarah Lynch, Muhammad Mansour
Morocco/Tunisia: Aida Alami
Iraq: Cathy Otten
Yemen: Faisal Darem
Qatar: Christina Paschyn
Lebanon/Saudi Arabia/ Gulf: Janelle Dumalaon
Jordan/ Syria: Rasha Faek
Libya: Reda Fheboom

Overall region, graphic: Jabeen Bhatti, Jennifer Collins




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  1. John Waterbury says:

    Congratulations to al Fanar on this very important initiative. One aspect should be investigated further. In many Arab public universities teaching staff draw special allowances and honoraria that are not part of the base salary and therefore not part of the benefits calculation. However they are important sources of supplemental income. So too the sale of lecture notes and “books” to students, prevalent in faculties with large enrollments (law, commerce, etc). It would be interesting to know what the extent of such allowances is relative to base salary.


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