As if long hours and a heavy workload weren’t enough, the way Chinese universities structure their compensation packages leaves most young lecturers scrambling to find ways to fill out their paltry wages. The basic salaries are often so low that they need to be supplemented with bonuses awarded from research grants and publications. Because of this, teachers are increasingly shirking their duties and instead focusing most of their attention on publishing just to bring home an acceptable paycheck.
As a young lecturer who has spent the last five years teaching and researching the social sciences at a major Shanghai university, I would like to pause at this point and explain how our salaries are constructed. They are composed of four components: an individual wage, position-based subsidies, a housing supplement, and piecework remunerations.
My individual wage is determined by pay grade minus various deductions like social security and medical insurance. After five years of employment, the individual wage component of my earnings is in the region of 3,500 yuan (around $535) per month, but after deductions my 2015 monthly take-home figure was normally 1,100 yuan, with two miserable months where it fell below 750 yuan.
The position-based subsidy is made up of several components and includes a transport subsidy. It generally comes out to between 3,700 and 3,900 yuan, and taxes normally don’t exceed 100 yuan.
Each city has its own regulations for the housing supplement, and some universities or departments will offer a bonus on top of this. Unfortunately, this is not the case at my school. My housing allowance has averaged around 1,500 per month.
Finally, the piecework wages are the most complicated component and come from a variety of sources. They include compensation for teaching lessons, writing and supervising exams, as well as various bonuses, research awards, and sometimes even payments for participation in departmental events. Payouts can range from a few yuan to more than 10,000, and these often make up the greatest part of any lecturer’s salary.
Individual remunerations serve to create a noticeable disparity between faculty members. Universities may award prominent researchers 100,000 yuan or more a year from publications alone, but those without research awards or developed publication histories are generally looking at a maximum of 20,000 yuan. My annual take-home for this section of my salary over the last five years has averaged around 10,000 yuan, but in 2014 it finally rose above 20,000 yuan, and this last year above 35,000 — accounting for one-third of my income in 2015.
So let’s take a closer look at how much I have actually earned over the last five years. For simplicity’s sake I have not included the housing supplement in my calculations, since it varies the most. The chart above shows my consolidated earnings.
One can see from this table that lecturers just starting out in the profession are afforded very low salaries. When I began my monthly income was under 3,000 yuan. I remember examining my pay slips every month and constantly thinking about quitting. But things have gotten better in recent years as I have begun being awarded research grants, and the papers I publish gain more prestige. My income is slowly increasing.
Of course, while this only represents my personal situation and cannot be applied to all university lecturers, there are still certain conclusions we can draw from the salary’s composition. The basic salary — that is, all of the salary that is not determined by piecework — is too low, and lecturers must instead rely on their individual remunerations to make up for it. The most obvious repercussion of this is that many people end up allocating their time to attaining grants, publishing, and filling out their salaries while shirking their teaching responsibilities. The higher the award in question, the less attention is spent on other duties.
It is not uncommon for universities to award as much as 10,000 yuan for an outstanding paper, while teaching two classes for a semester may not even pay half as much.
If a lecturer’s basic income cannot afford them enough economic security to teach or conduct research with peace of mind, they will look for other ways to support themselves. It also causes the income gap to widen between different members of the same profession, which increases social conflict. This is a serious problem facing universities and one that, if not resolved, has the potential to negatively impact education for China’s students on a national level.
(A Chinese version of this article first appeared on Groundbreaking.)
(Header image: A lecturer teaches a class at Southwest University in Chongqing, Dec. 14, 2015. IC)