ZIMBABWE: Outcry over lecturer pay increases

A 130% salary hike for public university lecturers has sparked an outcry and a notice of strike action by other state employees as government prioritises academics against a background of crippling brain drain.

This month government raised the monthly salaries of academic staff at state-run institutions of higher learning from the equivalent of about US$800 to US$1,800 - at a time when other state employees were awarded increases of between US$6 and US$8 a month.

The majority of civil servants in Zimbabwe earn the equivalent of US$150 a month.

In the country's 2011 budget, unveiled in parliament last month, Minister of Finance Tendai Biti announced the wage bill had been raised by 100%, raising hopes among long-suffering workers that they could expect a salary hike of the same magnitude.

But teachers, soldiers and others only discovered this month that a grading system that has been introduced favours some over others. And university lectures are among the few who have been awarded a meaningful hike - even though their salaries remain below regional levels.

Public Service Minister Eliphas Mukonoweshuro, who was a lecturer at the University of Zimbabwe before joining government in February 2009 following the establishment of a ruling coalition to accommodate President Robert Mugabe's rivals, has since said the state does not have the money to effect an increase to the salaries of other public workers, who are demanding a monthly minimum of US$500 for the lowest paid worker.

However, civil servants have notified government of their intention to embark on industrial action if their demands are not met, to cushion them in a country where the poverty datum line is pegged at US$500.

In a letter written to President Robert Mugabe and Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai, the Teachers' Union of Zimbabwe expressed anger and said on Tuesday: "We are striking against preferential treatment of civil servants by government. For instance, the same government which is refusing to increase our salaries has awarded university lecturers a hefty increment."

In an interview with University World News Raymond Majongwe, a member of the Apex Council, a body representing all civil servants, said they have also been angered by the government's actions, which border on discrimination.

"If government can give lecturers money it means it has the resources. It is upsetting when the government buys cars for member of parliament; if they can do it for others, then why can't they do it for civil servants? The government should not be selective," said Majongwe.

Observers say the latest government decision to prioritise lecturers follows recommendations by parliamentarians to improve the higher education sector, where chronic brain drain has wrecked institutions of higher learning, with some faculties closed due to shortage of academics.

A report released by the parliamentary portfolio committee on education last year detailed lecturer shortages at the University of Zimbabwe. The departments of animal science, community medicine, metallurgy and clinical pharmacology each require many lecturers but have nobody in post. Computer science, veterinary sciences, psychiatry, geo-informatics and mining engineering are in need of lecturers but have to cope with only one each. And there are similar shortages in the departments of medicine, anaesthetics, statistics, anatomy and haematology.

The report explained: "Academics are in short supply at the institution...The government needs to prioritise higher education in the fiscus for universities to not only be fully operational, but to also ensure better conditions for staff."