Post-soviet universities need academic salaries reform to succeed

For decades, universities in Soviet countries were governed, evaluated and financed according to the same principles. The system is not like this any more. However, faculty contracts – a core element in any university – have not changed much.

Faculty contracts in post-Soviet countries reflect the fact that many universities are built around teaching and learning processes. So, faculty contracts more or less explicitly describe teaching loads and obligations, and most monitoring and reporting activities are concentrated around contractual arrangements.

At the same time, the professoriate in general has few incentives and opportunities to be actively involved in research; research is poorly rewarded and teaching loads are heavy.

Teaching is far more relevant as a source of income for faculty, compared to other countries. At the same time, faculty in many post-Soviet countries (Russia and Armenia are typical examples of this) do not participate in consulting but rather engage in non-academic jobs.

Compared to professionals outside universities, university teachers are relatively poorly paid. That is the case for both top rank (such as associate professor or full professor) and entry rank (assistants or lecturer) academics.

Low salaries, moonlighting common
It is a common pattern in all developed countries that academics obtain less money but enjoy non-monetary benefits. However, even taking that into account, faculty salaries in former Soviet countries are significantly lower than those in other countries.

At least in part these conditions are based on the fact that, in general, these countries are relatively poor, compared to Western European countries, the United States, Canada or Australia.

But this does not explain why these salaries are more than twice as low in terms of gross domestic product per capita. In Nigeria, Ethiopia or India, where GDP per capita is also low, relative earnings of university professors are huge, compared to the rest of the population.

Since salaries are low and insufficient, moonlighting is quite common. Many teachers are engaged in teaching at several universities (including on for-profit programmes), offer private lessons or take on extra teaching at the same university.

Many teachers use the university reputation of their main employer (a position that does not pay very much money as a salary) to gain a good per-hour contract at a less reputable, for-profit university, which provides good money.

Many post-Soviet countries gave up university-specific entry examinations and substituted them with unified government exam systems, which have not continued in a widespread form.

However, private tutors are still in great demand, since they now help people to prepare for these unified tests; and many applicants from all income groups use preparatory lessons to increase their chances of enrolment to the best universities.

Fringe benefits
While academic contracts in post-Soviet countries differ substantially from those in developed countries, the fringe benefits are more or less the same as in the rest of the world.

Faculty enjoy retirement funds and longer vacations – the only time that academics who are overloaded with teaching but have not given up on research ambitions can engage in research. Other potential benefits, such as housing or work loads, are generally unavailable.

In the Soviet period, university teachers had access to many non-monetary benefits, and also had a higher social status than those who worked in business. So, the academic profession at that time attracted the brightest graduates and was able to provide them with quite good remuneration, high social status and fringe benefits – as well as clear career prospects.

Today, the conditions offered to university professionals, especially young ones, have the opposite effect with the best potential researchers choosing non-academic work or leaving the country to work in universities around the world.

Whether proper incentives can be restored, and how, are the key questions for building word-class universities in Russia.

Many post-Soviet countries are experiencing a demographic shock: the size of the 16- to 19-year-old age cohort is critically low. Few babies were born in the early 1990s as not many people felt brave enough to have children.

The lack of students creates huge competition in the university sector, for good or even not-so-good students. While university administrators are facing up to this challenge, they also need to reform the university sector by removing weak institutions and cheap diploma mills.

Reforming academic contracts is a key ingredient for creating better incentives for teachers, and would attract new young people into the higher education sector.

* Gregory Androushchak is adviser to the rector at the National Research University – Higher School of Economics. Email: Maria Yudkevich is vice-rector of the National Research University – Higher School of Economics. Email:

* This is an edited version of the chapter, “Faculty Contracts in Post-Soviet Countries: Common features, different futures”, in Paying the Professoriate: A global comparison of compensation and contracts, edited by Philip G Altbach, Liz Reisberg, Maria Yudkevich, Gregory Androushchak and Iván F Pacheco. New York: Routledge 2012. It is republished with permission.