A few months back, I finished reading The Global Future of Higher Education and the Academic Profession: The BRICs and the United States (edited by – among others – Phil Altbach and Liz Reisberg). It’s a good book for two reasons: first, it contains pretty good thumbnail sketches of the four BRIC countries’ higher ed systems, and second, it shows how crazy and fragile academics lives are in most of the world.
(An aside here: one thing I really like about this book is that it just treats the four BRIC countries as entirely separate case studies, rather than four aspects of a similar phenomenon. This is important because although BRIC was a handy acronym to encompass “big economies getting rich quickly in the mid-00s”, their vastly differing fates this decade shows that their economic similarities were pretty ephemeral. And what goes for their economies goes double for their higher education systems, which are basically chalk and cheese. The result is a much better product than the much more detailed, but conceptually muddled book by Martin Carnoy et al., University Expansion in a Changing Global Economy: Triumph of the BRICs.)
One of the highly amusing (to me, anyway) parts of this book was the way it underlined how academics get paid. In all four countries, junior academic pay is substantially below average urban wages. That sounds surprising – aren’t these people extremely well-educated? Can’t they command big salaries elsewhere? To which the answer is: yes, they can, which is why recruiting talented people to the academic profession is very difficult in some places (especially Russia and India). But it’s worth noting also that with the exception of Russia, relatively few junior academics in any of these countries possess a PhD. In most cases, they come with Master’s degrees (in Brazil, Bachelor’s degrees are still pretty common), and many never progress beyond that. If they do get a doctorate, they often get it while receiving paid leave from their university, which is not a bad deal.
So one of the book’s themes are the various ways that academics make money outside of formal academia – either by moonlighting at other (usually private) universities, or by teaching in a test-prep or cram school. Interestingly, in some countries, universities open their own test-prep schools specifically so as to provide moonlighting opportunities for their own profs, which sounds only just this side of crazy, but makes sense when you realize many of these places live with weird, bifurcated budgeting rules that put them in a straightjacket with respect to public money, but let them go hog-wild with self-generated income.
The rules on money from public sources play out in some very weird ways in China and India. In these countries, base pay is centrally regulated. But over the years, political compromises have allowed profs access to all sorts of pools of money outside their base pay. In China, on top of base pay, there are separate allowances for housing, food, telephone, transportation and laundry. India also has housing and transportation allowances, in addition to a “dearness allowance” (not a term of affection, but rather a cost of living adjustments), but also – and this is my absolute favourite – provides academics with a salary increment if they agree to a vasectomy or hysterectomy (conditions apply with respect to age, age of spouse, and number of children).
Basically, all these countries have highly centralized bureaucratic systems regulating institutional spending and pay, and all of them have a hard time treating money as fungible. This creates all sorts of situations that look pretty inane on the outside, but if you block out the details it’s still just a story of institutions maximizing revenue wherever possible (which usually means meeting market demand), and paying professors whatever they can to retain talent (which can mean all sorts of things).
Still, it makes the American practice of paying profs for nine months and letting them make up the difference on research grants seem pretty simple by comparison.