Abdul Rahman Ali, an assistant lecturer in medical technology at Misurata University, in northwestern Libya, drives a taxi to meet his family’s needs. He did not receive his university salary for three years, he said, which forced him to stop his academic career.
“My salary is not enough and I do not have health insurance,” said Ali, who has a wife and five children to support. “A professor’s career no longer has a place in the Libyan society. An additional job is needed to improve one’s income. … I have friends working in shops and translation offices.”
Ali is one of nearly 10,000 professors who have been on strike at 14 public universities for four weeks now, delaying the start of the new academic year, which was scheduled to begin in mid-September. The protest is believed to be the largest ever seen in the country’s universities.
Hussein al-Allam, a professor of economics at Bani Walid University who is serving as a spokesman for the professors and the higher education ministry staff members who are on strike, said Ali’s predicament was not unusual.
“Poor salaries and higher prices force professors to pursue other jobs… just to meet their financial needs,” he said.
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According to al-Allam, there are 190 faculty members at Misurata University’s Medical Technology Institute who, like Ali, were appointed in 2016 and have not yet been paid. And they’re not the only professors who have had to find other work in order to make ends meet.
“University disciplines like petroleum engineering, medical specializations and information technology were abandoned by their professors as a result of not getting decent wages,” al-Allam said. Most of them have not been paid since they were appointed.
Low Wages and a Weakened Economy
Professors’ salaries in Libya have not increased since the outbreak of the revolution that toppled Muammar Gaddafi in 2011, while inflation has exceeded 20 percent in recent years, according to the International Monetary Fund.
The monthly wage rates for professors at public universities in Libya range from 950 dinars ($237 at unofficial exchange rates available on the street) for an assistant lecturer to 2,100 dinars ($525) for an associate professor. The average expenditure of a Libyan family of five is about 1,600 dinars per month ($400).
“A professor’s salary is not enough to cover his or her needs till the middle of the month,” said Nawal el-Amrani, a professor at the Faculty of Engineering Technology at Zawiya University’s branch in Zuwara. “The situation is very difficult and unfit at the human and academic level.” She added that universities also suffer from poor budgets, which causes severe shortages of equipment and laboratory materials and negatively affects the quality of education and the work of research professors. (See a related article, “The Economic Struggle of Public-University Professors.”)
The country is hampered in its efforts to improve economic conditions by political and military conflicts among armed groups competing for power and by a split between two governments: the internationally recognized Government of National Accord, based in Tripoli, and a rival government in the east loyal to a military strongman whose forces control eastern Libya.
“Poor salaries and higher prices force professors to pursue other jobs … just to meet their financial needs.”Hussein al-Allam A professor of economics at Bani Walid University
With a population of about 6.5 million people, Libya spends more than 61 percent of its gross domestic product on government wages, which are usually paid from oil revenues. However, with the fluctuations in global oil prices and a decline in production because of the continuing conflicts, the budget deficit has soared—it stood at 26 percent of GDP in 2018, down from 34.5 percent the year before, according to the World Bank.
A Demand to Be Heard
The professors’ strike is not the first time demonstrations have been held demanding higher wages and better living conditions. But al-Allam believes that the failure to suspend study during the previous protests contributed to their failure to obtain a response from the government in Tripoli.
Over the course of five years, and under multiple education ministries, professors have repeatedly demanded better financial conditions, without getting a response, even when the salaries of more than 28 other job categories were raised in the country.
The educators’ unions declined to use strikes or sit-ins in the past because of the circumstances the country was going through, al-Allam said, “but we found on the other hand that the government responds to the demands of other groups.”
The current protests were triggered in part by the announcement by the Ministry of Education late last month that it would stop paying the wages of more than 150,000 teachers and other employees on the ministry’s payroll who do not have the appropriate documents. Libya has a huge public sector that pays salaries to fictitious employees whose names have been added to payroll lists in the chaos that has swept the country since 2011.
“I hope to see teachers’ salary the highest in the country, [compared to other professions] but we face a major imbalance.”
“I hope to see teachers’ salaries the highest in the country, [compared to other professions] but we face a major imbalance,” Othman Abdul Jalil, the education minister, said in an interview on Libyan television. “The education sector is burdened with paying salaries to people who do not exist. In order to meet the demands of teachers and professors we need 15 billion dinars.”
What the Professors Want
Al-Allam summarized the demands of the faculty members as follows:
- Social justice in wages, with a minimum wage not less than 1,200 dinars ($300) per month, to make salaries commensurate with inflation.
- Grant deserving students scholarships to study abroad.
- Resume payment for academic faculty to attend foreign conferences, which ended in 2015.
- Supply universities with the necessary resources.
- Provide professors with health insurance.
Many agree with the professors’ demands and see them as fair, but disagree with the way they are calling for their rights.
“We are against any measure that affects the educational process and the rights of students,” said Ibrahim al-Sahili, vice president of the General Union of Libyan Students. “There are other ways to get justice.”
Amal Abdel Moneim, a student at the Faculty of Arts at Zawiya University, is also concerned about her academic future. “The semester is too short and it will be difficult to make up for lost time,” she said. “I’m afraid we will lose the academic year.”
Al-Allam, however, says the solution is in the hands of the government. “If our demands are met, the strike will be suspended. We are keen to save the future of our students,” he said.
As soon as the demands are approved, he said, universities will help students catch up “by resuming study in the month of Ramadan, on weekends and holidays and throughout the summer vacation.”
For his part, Ali, the medical technology lecturer at Misurata University, wishes he could return to his classroom. “If I had enough income, I wouldn’t have to work and leave my studies and students,” he said.