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Durban - South African academics are among the best paid in the world, according to a new study presented at a higher education conference at the University of KwaZulu-Natal.
The research showed that local academics were the third highest paid in the world, behind Canada and Italy, if the cost of living is factored in to what they earn.
The salaries of full-time, permanent staff in 28 countries were surveyed. It was found the average monthly salary for a South African academic was $6 531 (R66 000).
For the research an expert in each country was asked to provide a report with information about their specific higher education system and the working conditions.
The study was co-authored by US academic Professor Philip Altbach, director of the Center for Higher Education at Boston College. Altbach was a keynote speaker at the seventh annual Teaching and Learning Higher Education Conference, held at UKZN last week.
The pay cheques for academics in the US (R61 000 a month), UK (R60 000) and Australia (R57 7000) were all smaller than their South African counterparts.
But, while South African academics are better off than most, Altbach emphasised that compared with similarly educated professionals, academics were still underpaid.
“For example an accounting professor makes less than an accountant. In Russia and China, academics cannot sustain a middle class lifestyle on their salaries. People don’t become professors to get rich. Public universities cannot match private sector salaries and there will always be a leakage of people wanting better,” Altbach said.
But the burden was also on universities to create a work environment conducive to good work by respecting academic freedom and supporting research.
“You cannot have a really successful university without really good academics, who are well trained, committed, paid well, and given the opportunity for upward mobility.”
While South African universities attracted academics from other African countries, it suffered a brain drain to countries such as the UK, US and Australia.
Professor Ian Scott, of the Centre for Higher Education Development at the University of Cape Town, explained that there was “anxiety” among academics over retirement, and that universities in the UK offered “extremely favourable” pension benefits.
Scott said that the conditions of service at South African universities could differ hugely from one institution to the next, but that generally, salaries could not compete with those offered in the private sector and, in some instances, the government.
Scott also confirmed Altbach’s finding that the difference between the salaries of lecturers and professors in South Africa was significant.
The salary for top level academics came in at R94 000, but just under R40 000 for entry level posts.
“But one is in it because of an intrinsic interest in the field, the intellectual challenge, to produce new knowledge and new generations of academics.”
Scott said just as important as salary was what he called “academic quality of life” – which was deteriorating at many universities because of less than ideal staff to student ratios.
Higher Education South Africa has previously acknowledged that academia was not “a particularly attractive career option” because of relatively low salaries, expanding student numbers and heavy workloads.
In its proposal document on developing the next generation of academics, the body which represents the vice-chancellors of each of South Africa’s universities states that remuneration is a key challenge.
For many first generation black graduates and graduates from working class backgrounds who had financial obligations to their families, higher paying employment opportunities in other sectors were more attractive.
The body’s chief executive, Jeffrey Mabelebele, could not be reached for comment.