CAIRO—Various scientific standards are used to differentiate between developed and underdeveloped countries. One of the most important standards used is the percentage of each country’s spending on scientific research and how a country’s universities rank in comparison to the best universities in the world.
Because numbers are elusive and ever changing, I personally use a more accurate standard, which is the automatic reaction of any mother when she finds out that the suitor proposing to her daughter works as a university professor. If the mother expresses her joy and excitement, this country is developed, or on its way to development someday. On the other hand, if the mother gasps and says “My poor, unlucky daughter” or any similar expression of sadness and grief, this country is undoubtedly underdeveloped and is on its way to further underdevelopment.
A friend of mine works as a university professor in a public university and has faced horrors in his journey to look for a bride. A family insolently rejected him because “no offence, but at the end of the day, you are merely a government employee.” Another family gracefully rejected him because “his job has no future these days.” He was told this after persistently demanding to know the real reason behind the rejection. One family would approve grudgingly on the condition that he gets a job in the Gulf, so “their daughter doesn’t suffer from a hard life.” A family finally welcomed his proposal just because the father of the bride happened to be a university professor who is still fanatical about the profession whose glorious days have long gone.
My friend—who got married after all our classmates had long been married—is intending to write a book about his struggles in finding a bride who accepted his profession. He hopes that the book would be turned into a television series, for which he gets money from publishing rights to help him with the cost of living. This intention of his is another story proving the deterioration of the university professor profession on the dark social ladder in a country that hasn’t realized yet that the hope of reform couldn’t stem from any other place but the university.
In an important survey on the salaries of professors in public universities—where most students get their higher education—in 12 Arab countries, conducted by Al-Fanar Media, the struggle of my friend became a reality backed up by unfortunate statistics. The survey revealed that Egypt ranks very low compared to other Arab countries in terms of paying fair salaries to its public-university professors. Even after the January 25th revolution, the government has succeeded in raising the salaries of university professors to reach $1,014 monthly (around $12,000 annually) at its maximum. This figure, if relied upon on its own, does not qualify its earner to even come close to surpassing the lower limit of the middle class level. Despite the increase in this figure compared to President Hosni Mubarak’s era, it still remains shameful when compared—not just to salaries of professors in the Gulf—but to the salaries of professors in Tunisia, Iraq and Jordan. In Jordan, the salary of a university professor is close to $60,000 annually. This might actually explain why higher education in Jordan is developed compared to many Arab countries that have preceded it many years ago in pioneering university education. The salary of a Lebanese University professor ranges between $30,000 to $90,000, which remains a lower figure than the salary of an Emirates’ university professor.
It is not surprising given such figures, that the Quality Assurance Center in Cairo University found that around 2,000 out of 10,323 faculty members at Cairo University are absent. It is likely that most of them work in the Gulf, where they earn almost five times as much as they earn in Egypt. Al-Fanar Media also noted that Egyptian professors’ salary raises were not used as a policy tool to demand better performance. Professors who are always absent or late for academic classes and those who force students to pay for private lessons or buy their books could have been deprived of this salary raise. At the same time, the university could pay more to professors who teach better, work longer hours or produce better research.
Many painful paradoxes are reported by Al-Fanar Media team in this regard, covering the concerns of students and professors alike. An English literature student complains that his professor at the public Al-Azhar University also teaches at the private American University in Cairo, which pays him better. As a result, the professor only shows up at the public university twice every semester. This has forced the student to pay to attend the AUC classes of the professor, whom he describes as excellent. At the same time, an engineering student complains that all that matters to his professors is that students buy their books and that they make that a requirement to pass exams.
On the other hand, a commerce professor complains that he cannot live on his salary. That is why he had to open a finance office to fund his participation in conferences to improve his academic capabilities. Meanwhile, a geology professor confesses that he and his colleagues have no time to communicate with students after the end of the academic day. This is because they are busy with other jobs, mainly working as consultants for companies in the private sector.
I don’t think I need to remind you that the government’s ready reply on such pitiful numbers and unfortunate paradoxes would be the usual talk about the scanty country resources, poor budget and lack of means. This answer will not be present if you ask, for example, about how much is spent annually on the salaries of senior army officers in the Ministry of Interior Affairs, on buying tear gas bombs used against university students or on financing the state’s visual, audio and print media—which would accuse you of treason if you expand the area of your queries to include talking about the budgets of authoritarian entities, the private funds and the so-called rare talents in the state apparatus—in comparison to what university professors and the employees of the scientific research centers get.
That is why, to avoid any headaches, all you have to do is repeat the government’s slogans about the important mission of higher education, even if everything the government actually does on the ground with professors, those who carry this mission, leads them to a low-paying dead end.
See also the related article “The Economic Struggle of Arab Public-University Professors.”