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Lacking Job Security and Benefits, Many Arab Professors Lose Interest in Academia

Editor’s note: This is the lead article in a package based on research by Al-Fanar Media into job benefits and protections for professors in universities in 11 Arab countries. See additional articles from Sudan,  Tunisia and Lebanon

University professors in Arab countries have long complained about poor wages, but recent interviews and research by Al-Fanar Media also found widespread dissatisfaction with other work conditions, such as a lack of basic benefits and short-term contracts that make their livelihoods precarious. Many are also discouraged by the absence of independent faculty unions to defend their rights.

These conditions—and governments’ and universities’ failure to respond to them—make some professors regret choosing an academic career and contribute to an exodus of academic talent from the region.

To learn about professors’ work conditions, Al-Fanar Media collected information about hiring policies and terms of employment  from government and university websites, and conducted interviews with 75 professors at public and private universities in 11 countries: Algeria, Egypt, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Libya, Palestine, Qatar, Sudan, Tunisia and the United Arab Emirates.

This research found that while professors at private universities often have good salaries compared to their counterparts in public universities, many say they still do not get basic benefits such as social or health insurance, but work under contracts that specify their teaching tasks and their pay, without any other allowances.

Many professors also lack basic job security because they work under contracts that university administrations can terminate without prior notice and without paying compensation. Moreover, public universities, which usually pay lower wages, have recently started to move towards concluding temporary contracts with many professors under the urgency of calls to hire more faculty members and the lack of funding needed to achieve this. As a result, many professors work today with low salaries and without benefits. (See a related article, “The Economic Struggle of Public-University Professors.”)

Negative Effects on Teaching

“The lack of job benefits negatively affects our academic work, especially in light of our overcrowded classrooms,” said Jemil El-Hadjarin, a professor at Manouba University, in Tunisia.  “We feel we are treated unjustly and try to compensate for that by overtime work in other professions most of the time. Some of us may give up teaching altogether or emigrate to work in another country.” (See a related article, “Most Arab-World Researchers Want to Leave, a New Survey Finds.”)

“The lack of job benefits negatively affects our academic work, especially in light of our overcrowded classrooms. We feel we are treated unjustly. … Some of us may give up teaching altogether or emigrate to work in another country.”

Jemil El-Hadjarin
A professor at Manouba University, in Tunisia.

A university professor in Jordan who holds a Ph.D. in environmental engineering agreed with El-Hadjarin. “My father and uncles are all university professors,” he said, “yet today I regret choosing such a career, which no longer has the same social status or job benefits.” The professor, who asked not to be named, explained that he worked for a short time in a private university with a temporary contract and a modest wage before deciding to abandon teaching for good and switch to business. (See a related article, “Would Your Mother Want You to Marry a Professor?”)

“University professors do not have any real job benefits, and they are vulnerable to violence by students amid the lack of an institution that protects and defends them,” he said. (See a related article, “Tribal Violence Plagues Jordanian Public Universities.”)

The situation is not that different in many other Arab countries, where the majority of private universities’ employment contracts adopt the “agreements must be kept” principle, whereby the universities specify the tasks of professors in exchange for material remuneration without any health and social insurance benefits, or allowances for travel or research, according to the interviews with professors.

In Kuwait, “a public university professor is ultimately protected by the same regulations protecting any public civil servant,” said Ibrahim Al-Hmoud, president of the Kuwait University Faculty Association. That means Kuwaiti professors “may not be punished, dismissed, or forced to resign except with strict rules.” Moreover, they have the right to resort to administrative courts.

“Those working in private universities have much less job guarantees than those working in a public university,” Al-Hmoud said, a condition which the faculty association believes “requires expediting the development of legislation that provides greater protection for faculty members.”

Lack of Job Protections

Most private universities hire instructors on short-term work contracts that may include just one renewable semester, and administrators have absolute authority to terminate the contract at any time, copies of the contracts obtained by Al-Fanar Media revealed.

“I think that the lack of long-term contracts makes professors live in a state of psychological instability because they are likely to have to leave at any time,” said Mazhar El-Shorbagy, an assistant professor of philosophy at Deraya University in Egypt’s Minya Governorate.

Omar Draider, a professor in the Petroleum Engineering Department at Libya’s Al-Rifaq University, in Tripoli, agrees with El-Shorbagy about the negative impact of the type of contracts common at private universities.

“Despite our good wages, we are threatened with the prospect of being dismissed at any time,” he said. “This threatens any professor or scholar’s job stability.”

In Sudan, universities come under “the same law applied to private companies, enabling them to dispense with any employee at any time,” said Khaled Hassan, an assistant professor with the Faculty of Engineering at the University of Garden City, a public institution in Khartoum.  He pointed out that he had previously worked in a private university that expelled professors and did not allow them to re-enter university buildings, even to collect their personal belongings from their offices.

“A public university professor is ultimately protected by the same regulations protecting any public civil servant.” That means Kuwaiti professors “may not be punished, dismissed, or forced to resign except with strict rules.”

Ibrahim Al-Hmoud
 President of the Kuwait University Faculty Association.

Meanwhile, public university contracts seem more equitable, as professors are often hired according to the general labor law applied to all public jobs, or the university employment law, under which professors receive social insurance and sometimes health insurance, if there is a health insurance system in the country. Contracts also sometimes include other compensation and a pension upon termination of service. Moreover, the termination of the contract is restricted by many procedures.

Dismissals Unrelated to Job Performance

However, many exceptions occur.

Al-Fanar Media’s research turned up many incidents of sudden dismissal or suspension of university lecturers for reasons not related to their job performance, at both public and private universities. Such cases happened in Lebanon, Palestine, Sudan and Tunisia.

In Lebanon, many private universities have terminated contracts with hundreds of professors under the weight of the country’s economic crisis without paying any compensation. (See a related article, “University Professors Feel the Pain of Lebanon’s Worsening Crisis.”) In Tunisia, contracted private university professors have been dismissed without prior notice.

In Palestine, three professors were dismissed from Al-Quds University last April and their union was unable to protect them. The firings came against the background of calls for university employees to strike after the administration ignored union demands, which included paying the cost-of-living allowance, a retirement fee, and a currency difference allowance for employees.

“We have been working at the university for twenty years, and are officially tenured.”

Majdi Hamayel
One of three professors dismissed from Al-Quds University after union activities

The three professors affected were Majdi Hamayel, president of Al-Quds University’s Union of University Professors and Employees; Abdullah Najajreh, the secretary-general of the Palestinian Federation of Unions of University Professors and Employees; and Muhammad Amarneh, the union’s legal advisor.

The professors’ dismissal prompted hundreds of their colleagues in Palestinian universities to sit in front of the Ministry of Higher Education in Ramallah, to support the rights of workers at Al-Quds University, protect their job security, and allow them to return to work and practice their union activity in full freedom, according to a statement issued by them.

In a phone call, Majdi Hamayel said the dismissals were “illegal” and a violation of university regulations because the work contract is “unlimited” after tenure. He explained that “we have been working at the university for twenty years, and are officially tenured.”

The Palestinian Human Rights Organizations Council said the dismissals were contrary to the Palestinian Basic Law, which guarantees freedom of trade union action, and international declarations that Palestine has endorsed guaranteeing the right to establish and join trade unions.

Weak Supportive Unions

In many Arab countries, there are no unions or other advocacy entities that include university professors and defend their rights.

Of the countries in Al-Fanar Media’s study, none have unions for professors at private universities.

Three countries—Algeria, Palestine, and Tunisia—have unions on the state level that represent professors at all public universities.

Kuwait, Lebanon, Libya, Qatar and Sudan have bodies on the university level, though some of these operate on a small scale that includes just one university, as is the case with the Kuwait University Faculty Association, and the Faculty Senate at Qatar University.

Egypt, Jordan and the United Arab Emirates do not have any faculty unions at all.

Where there are unions, their impact may be limited, as was seen in Palestine, where the union was unable to protect the three professors dismissed by Al-Quds University.

In Sudan, university professors are seeking to form a single general union of representatives of the faculty unions at each university, with the aim of uniting their efforts into a more influential entity.

Nevertheless, efforts to form unions are not always successful. That was the case in Jordan.

“Rights are usually protected by professional associations such as the Society of Engineering, the Pharmaceutical Syndicate, etc.,” said Suleiman Al-Olaimat, a faculty member at Jordan University of Science and Technology. “Several attempts have been made to establish a union of university professors including public and private university professors,” he said, “but unfortunately, all attempts reached a dead end due to the lack of consensus of views and financial and legislative support that guarantees the independence of the work of the union.”

Jordan shut down the union representing public school teachers in the kingdom last year after police raided its headquarters in Amman and 11 branches across the country, Human Rights Watch reported.

Poor Work Environment 

University professors’ problems are not limited to work contracts or the lack of supportive bodies. They face other problems such as the lack of external and internal training opportunities, work compensation and the provision of housing and transportation for employees from far away cities or areas. The universities also do not provide the professors with free computers or internet services on campus. (See a related article, “Not Just Money: Arab-Region Researchers Face a Complex Web of Barriers.”)

The failure of officials to respond to professors’ complaints “pushes many to abandon this profession.”

Asmaa El-Essealy
An assistant professor of ceramic arts at Tanta University, in Egypt

Some professors interviewed by Al-Fanar Media also pointed out an absence of incentives for scientific research, and unjust procedures for promotion.

“Academic work has become a burden on university professors,” said an Algerian university professor, who asked not to be named. “There are no incentives to work. This leads to a lack of passion and has turned teaching into a difficult profession.”

The negative consequences of the lack of job benefits are not limited to professors, but affect the entire educational process, especially as many professors stop working (see a related article, “A Professors’ Strike in Libya Reveals a Troubled University System”) and seek opportunities abroad, which causes a great loss in human resources. (See the related articles, “Tunisian Professors Flee the Country for Better Salaries” and New Professors Frozen Out at Lebanese University.)

The failure of officials to respond to professors’ complaints  “pushes many to abandon this profession,” said Asmaa El-Essealy, an assistant professor of ceramic arts at Tanta University, in Egypt.

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Mamdouh Taj, an assistant professor at the library department at Omdurman Islamic University, in Sudan, said the consequences are devastating.

“The results are catastrophic for Sudanese universities, with an estimation of about 13,000 qualified professors who emigrated in recent years to the Arab Gulf states and Europe,” he said. “The lack of interest in improving the status of professors was reflected in a lower quality of university education and the levels of graduates alike.”

Amr El-Tohamy, Tarek Abd El-Galil, Eman Kamel, Aisha Elgayar, Naziha Boussaidi and Roufan Nahhas contributed to this report.


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