Top academics well paid, new generation falling behind

South Africa’s senior academics are better rewarded than comparable staff in the public and private sectors, and they are relatively better paid than lower-ranked lecturers, according to a study by the vice-chancellors' association Higher Education South Africa, or HESA. This is good news for retaining senior staff but bad news for building the next generation of academics.

There are also lingering racial and gender inequities in remuneration.

The study warns universities to be aware of “fierce competition” for the best researchers, which could drive up salaries and have a destabilising effect on the sector. Conditions of service of lecturers and junior lecturers should be improved “drastically” so as to attract the best graduates into an academic career.

Further, it recommends that the gap in the remuneration-age profiles of male and female academics should be reduced, and universities should implement and fund proposals drawn up by HESA to enhance development of the next generation of academics, which would help to close remuneration levels of academics of different races.

The study, titled Remuneration of Academic Staff at South African Universities, was produced in November last year but released last week.

It was undertaken by HESA’s Funding Strategy Group, convened by its chair Dr Saleem Badat – then vice-chancellor of Rhodes University – in order to produce a report on the remuneration and remuneration trends of academics in universities and the higher education sector.


“In the face of ageing academics at most South African universities, as well as the transformation of the academic profession in order to make it more representative of the South African population, it is important to attract the best qualified young people from all population groups in significant numbers into the academy,” said the report.

Without competitive remuneration for academics – “especially at the lower echelons of the profession” – many promising potential and current staff would be lured to well-paying positions in the public or private sectors.

Further, the report said, there was an ongoing brain drain, with some of South Africa’s best researchers taking up prestigious jobs in other countries, sometimes for better remuneration.

“On the other hand, as a result of the weak Rand it is difficult to attract international academic staff to South African higher education institutions.”

Before 1980, the government quite stringently regulated academic salaries. From then until the early 2000s there was some regulation but since 2004, with introduction of the existing funding framework for higher education, government stopped regulating academic salaries.

“Regular Association of Commonwealth Universities studies since 2001, as well as the Boston College study of 2008, showed that the average salaries of South African academics compare favourably with their counterparts in other countries,” the report pointed out.

But since the salaries used in those studies were based on non-representative samples of South African universities, the relevance of their conclusions was questionable.

Academic remuneration

Total remuneration was defined as the ‘total cost to company’ of a permanent full-time academic or employee in the public or private sector. It is comprised of the basic salary and value of all allowances – such as employer contributions to pension or medical aid funds, life insurance, or car, telephone or entertainment allowances, bonuses or incentives.

In all, the study included 22 out of 23 higher education institutions – all those that submitted information by the deadline – and 14,910 permanent full-time academics.

The academics comprised 44% females and 56% males. Among 2,085 professors, 76% were male while 63% of 1,760 associate professors were male, 55% of 3,724 senior lecturers, 49% of 6,482 lecturers and 45% of 664 junior lecturers.

By population group, 27% of academics in the survey were black, 7% coloured (mixed race), 8% Indian and 55% white, while 3% did not indicate their population group.

Individual universities are not named in the study, but simply assigned a number, so it is not possible to identify which universities are the top – or bottom – payers.

The study showed that remuneration for academics across higher education was on average R537,400 (US$44,380) a year. Remuneration was highest in universities (R550,800) followed by universities of technology (R520,400) and ‘comprehensive’ universities combining both types of provision (R517,900).

There was an average annual remuneration growth rate of 3.73%. The position of academics had therefore “improved significantly” from 2008-12. The position of many academics in higher brackets improved more than those in lower brackets.

While real average annual growth rates in the remuneration of academics were moderately better than in the private sector, growth rates in total remuneration for public sector staff were “significantly higher” than for academics.

“In 2012, according to the report, the average remuneration of associate professors, senior lecturers, lecturers and junior lecturers relative to the average remuneration of professors were respectively 79.2%, 65.7%, 51.8% and 38.6%.

“The fact that the senior academic staff, professors and associate professors, had the highest real average growth over the period 2008 to 2012, as well as the fact that the average remuneration of professors was in 2012 almost twice that of lecturers, may indicate that institutional management are under some pressure to keep their senior academic staff.”

Academics in the health professions and related clinical sciences earned the most followed by engineering, philosophy, religion and theology, law, and public management and services.

The study investigated differences in the career paths of male and female academics in 2012, and found that from about the age of 30 the gap between the male and female remuneration-age profiles was “systematically widening".

There was little difference in remuneration levels between race groups, within the five ranks of academics – professors, associate professors, senior lecturers, lecturers and junior lecturers – but with black and coloured academics mostly in the junior ranks and whites dominating the senior ranks, overall salaries were skewed in favour of the latter.

A comparison was also done between the remuneration of vice-chancellors and academics. The average salary of a vice-chancellor in 2012 was R2.6 million (US$228,000) – up from an average of R1.9 million in 2008.

The highest vice-chancellor salary was R3.7 million and the lowest was R1.8 million. For the sector as a whole, vice-chancellors earned on average about five times more than academics.

Conclusions and recommendations

The study came up with four main conclusions leading to recommendations for universities, HESA and the government.

The first conclusion was that the remuneration of academics in senior ranks – senior lecturers to full professors – was in 2012 “better than the remuneration of comparable staff in the public and private sectors”.

This was “comforting as far as the retention of senior academic staff members is concerned”. But universities should “be aware of the possible implications of the fierce competition between institutions” for the best researchers and their very high remuneration.

“This competition could enhance academic excellence at some higher education institutions, but could also dampen the research spirit at other higher education institutions. Eventually it could have a destabilising effect on the higher education system,” the report warned.

The second major conclusion was that remuneration for academics in introductory levels was better than in the private sector but “far less” than comparable staff in the public sector. Clearly, this hampered the attractiveness of an academic career for young graduates, especially on the masters and doctoral levels.

The study recommended that universities improve the conditions of service of lecturers and junior lecturers “drastically in order to attract the best young graduates to an academic career”.

Also, each institution should conduct regular studies “highlighting not only changes in the retention rate of graduates (especially on the masters and doctoral levels) as academic staff, but also all the stumbling blocks (not only low remuneration) in the retention of young graduates as academics”.

The third finding was “a widening gap between the earnings of male and female academic staff, especially from the age of about 30 years. This is a phenomenon apparently also present in the private sector.”

“It was established by analysis that there was no direct discrimination against female academic staff in 2012 as far as remuneration was concerned.” However, said the report, as a result of many possible factors, female staff were under-represented in the higher academic ranks and over-represented in the lower ranks, resulting in lower remuneration levels.

“This issue should be studied on the institutional level, and if needed, measures should be taken to rectify this situation, or at least to reduce the gap in the remuneration-age profiles of male and female academics.”

The fourth conclusion was the difference between the remuneration-age profiles of white and Indian academics on the one hand and African and coloured academics on the other. This was “a matter of concern, even though analysis also shows it is not the direct consequence of discriminatory practices”.

The differences, the study found – which also seemed to widen with increasing age – were the results of African and coloured academics being under-represented in higher academic ranks and over-represented in the lower ranks.

The government, said the report, was considering proposals by HESA to enhance the development of a new generation of academics, which would help to close differences in remuneration levels of academics in different race groups.

But extra funds would be needed to implement the proposals. While the state should contribute, HESA called on all universities to become involved in the key initiative and “annually allocate funds for this purpose”.