More university inequality = more academic inequality

Around the world, the massification of higher education has created more differentiated systems, more inequality among institutions – and more inequality within the academic profession – according to Professor Philip Altbach, director of the Center for International Higher Education at Boston College in the United States. For most academics, things have got worse.

For some academics at the top of their fields and in leading universities, however, conditions and salaries had improved.

An academic ‘star’ system had emerged in some countries, Altbach told the 7th Annual Teaching and Learning Higher Education Conference in a keynote speech titled “The Academic Profession: Salaries, culture, academic freedom in a changing university”.

The conference was held at the University of KwaZulu-Natal in Durban from 25-27 September 2013 and was titled “Re-envisioning African Higher Education”.

Altbach said that the academic profession globally was in crisis at a time when higher education had never been more crucial for the global knowledge economy, and for producing growing numbers of graduates.

But the fact was that no university, or higher education system, could be successful without well-educated and committed academics.


Globally, a key characteristic of higher education over the past half century had been its massification, Altbach said.

There had been huge increases in enrolments across the world, with expansion in the past decade largely occurring in developing countries. Africa was the last region to experience higher education massification, which was just starting.

Simultaneously, the growth of the global knowledge economy had created the need for research institutions that would participate in a global network of knowledge producers and users. Research universities had become of critical importance to economies.

There had been significant growth of private higher education, which was now the fastest growing post-secondary education sector. Generally, though, private universities did not pay well, offer adequate career structures or provide attractive working conditions – thus contributing to worsening conditions for academics – and there was little focus on research.

There had also been substantial privatisation of public institutions, with governments unable to provide increased funding for their expanding higher education systems.

Impacts on the academic profession

These developments had impacted profoundly on the academic profession.

There had been deterioration in the qualifications of lecturers, to the extent that it was possible today that most had only a bachelor degree.

There had also been deterioration in working conditions for many academics, with higher teaching loads and a rising number of part-time lecturers.

In the United States, for instance, less than half of new academic appointments were on the tenure track, with most jobs part-time or full-time on contract. Everywhere there were growing numbers of part-time faculty who earned very little.

Turning to academic cultures, Altbach cited well-known American sociologist Burton Clark, who had coined the term “small worlds, different worlds” when analysing the academic profession some 30 years ago.

“There is a common ethos, to some extent, among professors. We are all members of a glorious profession – or at least it used to be glorious – but we’re in very different cultures,” he told the conference.

“Not only are academics divided by institutional type – research universities, teaching universities, community colleges, vocational institutions – but the mindset and orientation towards academe and scholarly work is much different for someone in the humanities than for someone in the hard sciences.

“Understanding the culture is important. A professor in the United States in a research university, and in many other parts of the world, has a very different perspective on life and very different work responsibilities than even a professor in a research university in Nigeria. Their terms and conditions of work are different, and their salary structures are different.”

“The cultures of universities are important, complex and multifaceted. And we very often forget about that, lumping all of us together. We’re not at all the same,” Altbach said.

University governance and administration had a key role to play in creating an academic culture – including encouraging participation in decisions, and good teaching and research – as did the professoriate itself.

A vibrant academic culture needed collaboration and competition, participation in the life of the institution, and the commitment of academics to their disciplines and fields.


Last year Altbach co-authored a book, Paying the Professoriate: A global comparison of compensation and contracts*, that surveyed the professoriate in 28 countries. One of its many findings was that salaries and remuneration were critical to ensuring academic success and productivity.

Altbach pointed to several key elements revealed by the survey.

One was that worldwide, academic salaries were not competitive with those among similarly educated professionals working outside higher education.

Second, in most countries the academic profession did not pay salaries that provided a locally-standard middle-class life, as measured by purchasing power parity. Most Western countries, however, did pay salaries that enabled a middle-class lifestyle.

Canada paid the highest average academic salaries, followed – in purchasing power parity terms – by Italy, South Africa, India, the United States, Saudi Arabia, the United Kingdom, Australia, The Netherlands and Germany.

Academics in Armenia were the worst paid among the 28 countries, followed by Russia, China, Ethiopia, Kazakhstan, Latvia, Mexico, the Czech Republic, Turkey and Colombia.

Altbach said that academic salaries in South Africa and India had been surprisingly high, albeit in purchasing power parity terms.

The survey also found differences among countries between entry and senior salaries. Inequalities in this regard were quite high in South Africa and China, while in Western European countries there were not big differences between top and bottom academic salaries.

In an era of global academic mobility, Altbach warned, nations that paid their academics poorly would struggle to retain their ‘best and brightest’, while those that paid relatively well would be able to attract and retain international scholars.

South Africa provided a good example: the country had been attracting academics from across Africa, presumably because it offered considerably better salaries than they received at home.

Appointments and contracts

Altbach argued that to have an effective academic profession, stability and accountability in academic contracts were key words.

The terms of academic contracts had to be both attractive and effective in ensuring accountability and productivity. “It’s not enough to merely appoint someone at the beginning of his or her career, and give them a permanent job and hope that they work out,” he said.

“A few countries still do that. Many countries used to do that, because academics were considered to be civil servants. This was the pattern in continental Europe and some other parts of the world.

“When you are appointed as a civil servant, the assumption is that after a short probationary period you’ll have a permanent job and float up the ranks with regular salary increasea, not based on productivity but on longevity. That’s changed in most parts of the world.

Today, a clear career path was essential, based on meritocratic evaluation of work and promotion. Many countries, however, were falling short in the area of academic contracts.

For example, Germany’s higher education was complex and did not offer academics a clear career path, while in Saudi Arabia everybody hired at the assistant professor level had a permanent appointment and it was “impossible” to fire anybody. Europe’s civil service model had provided stability but not sufficient reward for productivity, and had been abandoned.

Academic freedom

Academic freedom was fundamental to the academic enterprise, said Altbach, and required freedom of inquiry, research and teaching. The widely understood definition of academic freedom, developed in the United States from the 1920s, included the right of academics to speak out or write about anything.

“One could have a long philosophical discussion about the responsibilities of academics and appropriate limitations on academic freedom, particularly in politically or socially unstable societies. But suffice it to say that academic freedom is considered central to the academic profession and to the university.”

In conclusion, said Altbach, conditions for the global professoriate today are generally poor – at a time when the university has never been more important for societies and when professors, especially those in research universities, are key to their countries’ participation in the global knowledge economy.

It was critical that all involved in the academic enterprise – governments, higher education leaders and academics – worked to ensure that the professoriate in the 21st century could function effectively in academe and in society.

* Paying the Professoriate: A global comparison of compensation and contracts, by Philip G Altbach, Liz Reisberg, Maria Yudkevich, Gregory Androushchak and Iván F Pacheco, was published by Routledge and supported by the Center for International Higher Education and the Higher School of Economics in Russia.