About me.

Andrew M. Mwenda is the founding Managing Editor of The Independent, Uganda’s premier current affairs newsmagazine. One of Foreign Policy magazine 's top 100 Global Thinkers, TED Speaker and Foreign aid Critic

Saturday, June 25, 2022

On the teachers’ strike

Teacher on blackboard. PHOTO PEAS (Promoting Equality in African Schools)
How government may have opened a Pandora’s box by creating huge salary disparities among its employees

THE LAST WORD | ANDREW M. MWENDA | There seems to be haphazardness in the government of Uganda that is hard to fathom. One case in point is the way they have caused a strike among arts teachers in primary and secondary schools. One day, the government woke up and increased the salaries of science teachers with diplomas and working in government schools from (between) Shs 700,000 and Shs 900,000 to Shs3million. Then it increased salaries of teachers with degrees from (between) Shs1million and Shs1.4million to Shs4million. In each of these cases, salaries are increased fourfold. I find this strange.

What explains this excessive salary increases? It is rare for companies and organisations – leave alone government – to quadruple salaries across the board and do so overnight.  Such a windfall is not even good for the person receiving it – it can turn the lives of many up-side down as they try to adjust to radically transformed lifestyle overnight. Second, there is no evidence that paying science teachers better improves the quality of teaching or even learning. So, what is the main objective of these salary hikes? Third, it creates an apartheid system where some teachers (those teaching science subjects) earn four times more than those teaching arts subjects but with the same qualifications.

It is no wonder that arts teachers have gone on strike asking for similar pay. The arts teachers may not sustain the strike for long if government sticks to its guns, insisting they go back to teach or will be considered to have abdicated their duties. Many may be forced by circumstances to return and teach without a salary increase. But they will be demoralised and demotivated. The consequence of this could be that they reduce their quality of teaching. Thus, while government is unlikely to improve, the quality of science education, it will degrade the quality of arts education.

Why did government create such a huge disparity in salaries between arts and science teachers with similar qualifications? One can understand if the difference is 10 to 20%. But a difference of 300% and more is quite staggering. Did anyone consider the psychological effect of such pay disparities among teachers with similar qualifications in the same school?

Now government is caught in a catch 22 situation. It cannot reverse the salary hike for science teachers because it has created all these wild expectations. Should it back-peddle and cut down the proposed salary hikes for science teachers, they will be demoralised and demotivated. If it keeps them, it will demoralise and demotivate arts teachers. The best solution would be to create some degree of salary parity by hiking the salaries of arts teachers. But this would create even worse budgetary problems.

Government has about 250,000 teachers on its payroll. Assuming the average salary is going to be Shs3.5million (the mean between Shs3million and Shs4million), there is an average increment of roughly Shs2.8million per teacher. That means government would have to increase teachers’ salaries by an extra Shs7.5 trillion. Where does government expect to get this money from? Assuming it increased teachers’ salaries, this would lead to contagion.

Immediately medical workers will demand a salary hike, university lectures will follow suit, policemen, the army and prison, prosecutors and state attorneys, road workers, civil servants etc. – everyone will form a union to demand wage parity and fairness. And who would blame them? Did someone consider these likely consequences? Perhaps government has done this so many times for medical workers, judicial officers, MPs and it thinks it can always get away with it. But there is always a tipping point.

The major problem here is that government of Uganda has a very poor and opportunistic way of increasing salaries. This is what has created despondency in the public sector. One day, government woke up and increased salaries of medical workers, especially doctors, by about 300%. It did the same for judges and then top civil service officials, some of whose salaries went up by 500%. Yet the prudent way to enhance people’s salaries should be phased over time. For instance, government can decide that every year there will be automatic salary increases of all public sector workers to accommodate the cost of inflation.

The second step would be for government to project, like it had done for lectures at public universities, a 20% real increase in public sector wages every two years for a specific period of time – say ten years. That would double wages over that period, which is prudent and does not create wild wage windfalls that have sudden and destabilising psychological and lifestyle changes.  This would give hope to public sector employees without creating havoc to the budget. And government should avoid trying to create special categories in the public sector who are more deserving. This kind of discrimination will create envy and malice among and between people of similar qualifications working in the same place. The conflicts resulting from such can undermine the quality of work.

Take the example of current crisis of teachers’ salaries. Imagine a head of school of a primary school who is an arts teacher earning Shs900,000. All of a sudden, his science teacher, a subordinate, earns Shs3million. What will be the impact of this on their work relationship? One does not need to have studied industrial psychology to tell that such a situation is likely to cause conflicts among teachers in the same school. And what is likely to be the effect of such envy and malice and conflict on the students?

Finally, about 40% of students in primary schools and over 60% of students in secondary schools, study in private schools. The total number of teachers in private schools is about 350,000. Very few private schools in Uganda can afford these outrageous salaries. What is going to be the effect of such huge salary disparities on private schools who are vital for our education system? And these salary increases are coming after COVID-19 which left private schools with huge losses resulting from two years of no revenue and high interest-bearing loans from banks.

Government in Uganda has little consideration of the contribution made by private education providers in the country. In fact, the essence of private schools has been to shift pressure from public schools in order to make universal primary and secondary education affordable by government. Without private schools, the government’s education bill would more than double. Private education is therefore a subsidy parents give government.



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