At the time of drafting this essay it has been announced that President Peter Mutharika has dissolved the University of Malawi Council because it has failed to solve the matter that Chancellor College staff had raised. The latter were demanding harmonisation of salaries for academic staff on the same grade in the university’s colleges after learning that their colleagues at College of Medicine were receiving 40 percent more.
There are several reasons salaries given to members of one profession might differ from those given to members of another profession. In a profession where it is easier to enter than one where it is not so easy, salaries tend to be lower. It takes at least six years for someone to graduate in medicine but less than this to graduate in humanities and social sciences. Hence, those with medical qualifications usually start their careers with higher entry points.
Some individuals earn fabulous salaries because of their special talents. Some Hollywood actors and actresses command salaries higher than those of the President of the United States of America not to mention presidents of less wealthy countries. Years ago I remember listening to a BBC conversation between President Anwar Sadat of Egypt and an American actress. “I earn only 12 000 pounds a year,” said Sadat but you earn $8 million, the actress replied. But there are compensations living in a palace.
Those engaged in hazardous and rougher vocations are usually paid higher wages than those who are not so exposed. On the mines, those who work underground get higher wages than those who work on the surface. Without such differentials, it would be difficult to find someone willing to volunteer for work deep down in the mines.
Some people earn more as a result of rent-seeking. It means earning more without rendering extra or better services. This happens when they persuade government agencies to put artificial barriers on entry to the profession through licence. To enter certain professions, standards are raised deliberately to create monopolies thereby inflating the earnings of the few.
Is the medical profession more important that the teaching profession?
Dr James Kwegyir Aggrey from Ghana as a member of the Phelps-Stokes Commission was confronted with such questions at the Henry Henderson Institute in 1924. Here, I can only paraphrase his response and not quote him verbatim. Suppose you have two healthy children, a daughter and a son, whom you want to send to school and there are two professions. In front of you, a teacher and a doctor, which of these do you need to solve your problem? You would say the teacher. Suppose some other day one of your children is seriously ill and before you, there is a doctor and a teacher, which of these do you need most? Surely it is the doctor.
The great sage of Africa went on to say each profession is the most valuable in a set of circumstances, not all circumstances. This is not what some Aggrey’s compatriots of today think. A few years ago, some doctors went on strike demanding higher pay than what members of Parliament (MPs) were getting. The MPs told the doctors they deserved higher salaries because they were more important than doctors. A person in poor health or with a sick child would have a different opinion.
Strikes in Malawi’s public sector have become endemic; they are continuing and must be restrained. For an individual and the nation to become wealthier, they must engage in continuous work. There is no substitute for hard work.
At all times whether we work in public or private sector, we must bear in mind that higher pay is easier to award where higher productivity and production have taken place, not before. In the public service, it is difficult to measure higher productivity and more production. We must look at the economy as a whole. When the economy has registered higher growth, the government can collect more tax revenue and hence pay its employees more.
When we read a reputable magazine like The Economist, the Makerere is the best university between Sahara and South Africa while from other sources, we learn that the University of Malawi is not good enough, we sigh and whine. n