The United States does not lead the world in faculty pay, and is quite far behind when comparisons of national wealth are factored in, according to a new analysis released Tuesday.
"International Comparison of Academic Salaries," prepared by three scholars at the Boston College Center for International Higher Education, represents one of the more ambitious efforts to compare faculty pay across national lines. While some existing studies look at members of certain groups (the Association of Commonwealth Universities, for example, which tends to have as members the leading universities of a country) or regions (Europe), there have been few efforts to compare salaries across different types of institutions and countries.
The new study covers only 15 countries, and generally includes only four-year institutions for comparative purposes. But it includes countries in the developed and developing worlds, and from regions worldwide. To reflect differences in the cost of living, the study is based on World Bank Purchasing Power Parity dollars. These are U.S. dollars for the United States average, but for other countries they are adjusted to reflect local purchasing power. So pure U.S. dollar averages would go up in countries where the cost of living was relatively low; that adjusted total would represent the World Bank dollar figure quoted in the study. The Boston College researchers acknowledge in the report that there are arguments to be made for alternative parity measures, but they ended up using the World Bank figures because they were available for all of the countries studied.
Even with those adjustments, there are difficulties in comparing average salaries across national boundaries. The United States, for example, has a diverse higher education system, only some of which is elite. Some other countries, by contrast, have only elite universities. In addition, universities in the United States rely heavily on part-time faculty members, whose salaries are not included in this study. Other countries make much less use of adjuncts.
For the best entry-level pay, North America appears to be the place to be, with Canada leading the way, followed by the United States. For purposes of the study, the researchers tried to identify the entry point as the position that has a direct path to permanent employment, not just a position available to those finished with their doctorates -- so, where possible, the data are for the equivalent of assistant professor positions, not postdocs.
Average Monthly Salaries, in World Bank Parity Dollars, for Entry-Level Faculty Positions, 2005-6
The researchers also compared average salaries for senior academics in the various countries. Here, Saudi Arabia jumps in front of Canada and the United States.
Average Monthly Salaries, in World Bank Parity Dollars, for Senior Faculty Positions, 2005-6
While developing nations don't fare well in pure dollar totals, they do quite well when national wealth is factored in -- and in fact the United States does poorly. The Boston College study looked at the ration of average faculty pay to the gross domestic product per capita of various countries, on a monthly basis.
Ratio of Average Monthly Faculty Salaries, in World Bank Parity Dollars, to GDP Per Capita, 2005-6
The study was conducted by Laura F. Rumbley, Iván F. Pacheco, and Philip G. Altbach, and also includes individual reports on the various countries.
While the study notes that it is "not a surprising revelation" that developed countries pay more than developing countries, the researchers point to important ramifications for both groups. For the developing nations, the study highlights the potential struggle to hold onto the best faculty talent. But the figures on faculty pay relative to national wealth suggest that the wealthier nations -- where higher education appears to be less of a priority, at least in faculty pay -- may also need to confront questions about how they treat their professors.
"[I]n contexts in which academics may find themselves making an 'average' salary following many more years of schools than the average citizen -- or making far less than other professionals (for example, in the legal, medical, or technology fields) -- it may be difficult to retain top talent," the report warns.
John W. Curtis, director of research and public policy for the American Association of University Professors, said that the study points to both the value and the limitations of comparing salaries in an international context. One key point, he noted, is that while some faculty members can move anywhere in the world, many can't, so there isn't one international market for jobs -- at least for many professors. In addition, some differences may reflect local policies, such as the fact that the percentage of professors who are unionized is greater in Canada than in the United States.
Curtis said it was important to continue building upon this sort of research, given that "American universities are expanding across the globe, European universities are attempting to remove barriers to mobility for students and faculty alike, and developing countries are attempting to keep more of their educated citizens at home."
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