EGYPT: Academics struggle with no pay rise for 25 years

The monthly salary Tareq Al Desouki earns from his job as a medical professor at a university in Egypt's Nile Delta barely covers his family's needs for one week. He depends on his earnings from a private clinic to make both ends meet. "But what about the thousands of university professors who do not have a private clinic to earn enough to cope with the soaring costs of living?" complains Desouki, a leading member of the University Teaching Staff Club, a union pushing for substantial increases in the salaries of instructors in Egypt's government-run universities. Last month, lecturers staged a symbolic half-day nationwide strike, the first in Egypt's academic life, to demand better wages and working conditions.

"The university professor should be paid adequately to be able to do his job properly," says Desouki, a member of the union's strike action coordination committee. "The professor is required to do research, which costs a lot. Unlike other employees in Egypt, professors are promoted on the basis of their research, not the number of years they spend in the job. How can they do this with the pittance they receive?"

Egyptian academics say their salaries have remained unchanged since 1972 and the government has not challenged their claim. Starting salaries for assistant professors in government-run universities is barely 500 Egyptian pounds (US$93).

"The lecturers' pay system was last overhauled in 1972. Under this scheme, the professor gets an allowance of 25 pounds per month for attending college board meetings. Can you believe the value of this allowance is still the same 36 years on?" adds Desouki. "I want to devote my time to my research and students, not to my private clinic. But as things are standing, this is next to impossible."

Universities are not alone: staff in a number of other government agencies have not seen salary increases for years. It makes state universities vulnerable to competition for staff from the private sector and, particularly, from institutions overseas. Private universities have sprung up in Egypt in recent years and have attracted teachers from state universities with the lure of higher salaries.

"Instead of leaving to work in oil-rich Arab Gulf countries, I have opted for a rewarding job at a private university here in Egypt," says Mustafa Abdel Wahab, a professor of biology at Egypt's International University.

Wahab added that several colleagues, disappointed at their low wages in Egypt, have accepted hefty offers to teach overseas: "While Egypt's governmental universities are overburdened with students, the number of professors is constantly on the decrease. This glaring imbalance badly affects the quality of education available at these institutions and their ability to attract qualified teachers."

The Egyptian government has said it plans gradually to increase professors' salaries as part of a wider scheme to raise public-sector wages. Before the 23 March strike, Prime Minister Ahmed Nazif met a delegation of university teachers and promised them better wages in the form of allowance rises. The offer has not impressed the professors, who are demanding a significant increase in their basic salaries.

"The government holds university teaching staff in high regard and is keen to provide all favourable conditions for them to do their job," says Hany Helal, the Minister of Higher Education who oversees the country's state-owned universities. "The Prime Minister has agreed to raise their salaries starting from July. But those who called for strikes promote a certain agenda, which does not care about their students' best interests."

During a meeting in Cairo last week, academics agreed to hold a new round of negotiations over better pay with the government. Yehia al-Gazaz, a University Teaching Staff Club negotiator, has threatened an "open strike" if their demands are not met. "Our action can go as far as scrapping university examinations," says Gazaz.

Hundreds of thousands of students at state universities are set to start taking their year-end examinations in May. The Egyptian parliament will soon debate a draft bill on amending regulations for the state-owned universities but a sticking point in the draft is the employment of academics who are over 70.

Under the new regulations, veteran professors will be recruited for renewable two-year stints and be paid 80% of their younger colleagues' remunerations while still collecting a pension. Academics are not pleased with the proposed changes.

"These amendments are unfair and inadequate," Gazaz says. "Professors over 70 who have given the best of their lives to their job should be treated on an equal footing with other colleagues in terms of financial entitlements and medical insurance so long as they work full-time."

He says the contracts should be valid for four years, instead of two, and be renewed automatically unless the professor demands otherwise. At present, retired lecturers who want to be re-employed have to apply for the job by writing to the heads of the college departments.

"This is demeaning," says Gazaz, a professor of science at the University of Helwan in southern Cairo.

The controversial amendments were rejected last week by the Teaching Staff Club board at Cairo University, Egypt's biggest and oldest university: "The draft bill drawn up by the government falls short of President Mubarak's instructions," says Adel Abdul Jawad, the head of the Teaching Staff Club Union. "Mubarak has ordered that due attention should be paid to veteran lecturers and that their full rights should be secured."

Jawad says all academics over 70 should be employed "without exceptions, unless they express a different wish".

Egypt has recently been hit by a wave of labour protests against low wages and price hikes. Earlier this month, two Egyptians were killed and more than 100 were injured during violent clashes with police over price rises in the industrial city of Al Mahla Al Koubra, 110 kilometres north of Cairo.

"People, including university lecturers, are running out of patience," says Mahmoud Sobhi, a history professor at Sohag University in the south. "Who in his right mind can believe that after 20 years in the service my salary does not exceed 700 pounds?"

Sobhi says he cannot supplement his income by giving private tuition because this academic discipline is not attractive for students. He urges the authorities to take drastic measures to "ensure a dignified life" for university teachers. "If the Government does not have enough resources to finance substantial pay increases, it has to do something real to bring the soaring prices under control," he says.

Egypt's urban consumer inflation soared to its highest rate in more than three years in March as food prices jumped. The urban consumer price index rose 14% in the 12 months to March after a 21% annual increase in February, according to recent figures. Opponents harshly criticise the government, which has been implementing an ambitious package of economic reforms since the early 1990s, for failing to help the fruits of these reforms trickle down to the poor.

Around 40% of Egypt's 80 million people live on or near the poverty line, according to the World Bank.