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University Salaries Show Poor Correlation with Academic Achievements

On the other hand, administrative responsibilities bring a good addition to pay


In Brief

Situation: In 2012, many universities started signing incentive contracts with their staff in order to stimulate research and active inclusion in the global academic market. Together with orders issued by Russia’s president in May, this has led to growth in university salaries. But exactly which responsibilities increase pay — teaching, research or administrative work? The answer to this question will help improve the effective contract system to make it profitable both for teachers and universities.

In fact: Research performance, which is measured in the number of publications in academic journals, is what really brings university employees a raise in pay. Administrative responsibilities also turn out to be more profitable in terms of salaries, just as it was during the Soviet era. This isn’t the case with teaching: increases in pay are minimal for this type of work.

Now in More Detail

Victor Rudakov and Ilya Prakhov, researchers at the HSE Center for Institutional Studies, studied the contribution of different responsibilities (teaching, research and administrative) in the salary structure of university employees. It was important to evaluate the financial return on different types of activities, since most university employees perform several functions at once. The results of the study were published in European Journal of Higher Education.

What Is It All About?

Ideally, every academic achievement should be rewarded in the system of incentive contracts, to which the Russian universities have switched. Usually, it concerns measurable indicators: classroom hours, number of published papers, books, etc. It is harder to include other achievements, although there are many of them, such as the ability to inspire students, to build a research team etc. Besides financial incentives, there are non-monetary incentives, such as recognition by colleagues and satisfaction from research projects. They also impact the academic performance.

The idea behind an incentive contract is to tie the size of reimbursement with the results that an employee achieves. The core part is increased by bonuses for successful performance. Correct incentive schemes are good both for staff and universities. The former achieve more and get more money for it, while the latter have improved numbers and increased competitive ability. This is particularly important during the transition to a knowledge-based economy and the growing role of academia.


The opposite is also true — unreasonable contracts can spoil a university’s reputation. For example, if only the quantity of publications in academic journals is considered, rather than their quality, there is the threat of there being a flow of bad papers. The university would fall into disrepute. At the same time, serious research projects could be damaged, since they’re generally unable to be turned into papers quickly.

In terms of international competition, high-quality research is essential for universities. Not only does it improve their positions in prestigious international rankings, university research and development is a driver of the economy. Of course, this by no means lessens the importance of teaching.

The focus on research at universities is an attempt to balance the system. During the Soviet era, universities did more teaching than research. Research was mostly done by research centres and Academy of Sciences institutes. Higher education reform gave universities the opportunity to combine effective teaching with research breakthroughs. And in the early 2010s, the system also started to receive funding, which aimed to alleviate the consequences of the 1990s, which had proven to be a period of crisis for academia.

At that time, 30 years ago, Russia began experiencing serious brain drain. Some scholars went abroad, while others left academia. University salaries were low, and the staff had to take several jobs at the same time. For example, in 2000, only about 25% of teachers at Lomonosov Moscow State University did not have side jobs.

The salary structure at the time could not stimulate research. It consisted of a fixed basic salary, which was almost the same for teachers with the same academic degrees, and bonuses, which were determined by specific universities. The ratio of the basic part and the bonus was from 30% to 70% on average. Professors could receive bonuses for additional teaching, research and administrative responsibilities. But the basic part did not exceed 25% of the average salary in the country, which means that even with all the bonuses, remuneration at universities was low. The academic profession consequently lost its appeal.

In second half of the 2000s, higher education started to change. Some universities received a special status. 2006 was the year when the first federal universities appeared as big local higher education centres that have been more focused on teaching. National research universities (NRUs) started to evolve in 2008 and have focused on research.

2012 was even more important. On May 7, Presidential order No. 597 was issued, which stipulated that by 2018 average salaries of university teachers and researchers should be at least 200% of the average salary in the region. Order No. 599, which was issued on the same day, established the goal of ‘bringing at least five Russian universities into the hundred best global universities according to world university rankings’ (Project 5-100). All of these changes have undoubtedly impacted the university staff as well.

At the same time, university employees were also give additional financial incentives. From 2012-2015, the average academic salary grew by 45%, although in real terms, this figure is undoubtedly lower due to inflation.

Following the growth in salaries, research work intensified. The number of publications in journals indexed by international databases grew considerably. From 2012-2015, the number of Russian papers indexed by Scopus and Web of Science (WoS), almost doubled. What financial incentives did university staff receive for research work specifically?

How Was It Studied?

The researchers base their conclusions on data from a large-scale HSE University project — Monitoring of Education Markets and Organizations. Ilya Prakhov and Victor Rudakov looked at regression models that reflect the structure of salaries in academia (with a focus on 2012-2017). Dependent variables — natural logarithms of monthly pay — were linked to independent variables: indicators of research, teaching and administration. The study controlled gender, age, years of experience and university status. It considered national research universities, participants of Project 5-100 and universities without special status.

University teachers’ salaries depend on many parameters: human capital (knowledge and competencies), demographics (gender, age, etc), specificity of the place of work (university status and type, region), among others. But to understand the mechanism of an incentive contract, the observed indicators are important: publications in journals (their presence and number), editing of academic books, patents for inventions, conference presentations, etc.

The researchers compared the situation with salaries before and after the reforms. Before the reforms, professors’ salaries were largely determined by their administrative status and years of experience, while the research component contribution was small.

What Were the Results?

Ilya Prakhov and Victor Rudakov’s study demonstrated that if different aspects of academic work are ranked by monetary reward, administrative load is still in the first place, with research achievements coming in second.

Still, the contribution of publications to salary has grown in comparison to the pre-reform era, which is a sign of the potential effectiveness of incentive contracts. There are limitations, however.

First, the structure of academic compensation varies depending on university status. Looking at the data on research productivity for the whole sample of universities, publications in Russian academic journals have the most impact on salaries, adding 19% to pay. Papers in Scopus/WoS-indexed journals add between 11% and 12%.

The situation in special status universities is better. ‘The number of publications in Scopus/WoS-indexed journals makes the most contribution to salaries: each published paper can add about 22% to pay,’ the researchers wrote.

This makes sense. Such publications help universities grow in international rankings, which is essential for special status universities. It’s not surprising that this publication activity is included in incentive contracts.

This means that the structure of incentive contracts at NRUs and universities participating in Project 5-100 precisely reflects the goal set by the reforms that introduced these statuses. Conducting research is becoming advantageous and profitable. The same is true for building good relations between universities and staff. That said, the number of papers in Russian academic journals is negatively correlated with salaries at ‘status’ universities. It looks like no considerable bonuses are offered for these.

The situation differs slightly at ‘ordinary’ universities. Publications in Russian academic journals and the number of publications in Scopus/WoS-indexed journals are important, but the effect for the latter is lower than for ‘status’ universities. It appears as though ordinary universities offer bonuses for research, but the quality of academic publications is not always considered in the contract structure.

The second factor is the ongoing advantages of administrative work. In addition to possibly provoking a re-orientation to the indicators assessed by the researchers, it may also have a demotivating effect in that professors may find administrative load more profitable than research.

Professors with administrative responsibilities may earn a bonus equal to about 50% of their salary.

‘Today’s academic contracts truly combine a research component — incentives for research as a response to the global challenges of the knowledge economy — and elements of Soviet heritage — hierarchic bonuses for administrative positions,’ Ilya Prakhov said. ‘The difference in the salaries of top executives as compared to junior researchers can be much bigger than during the Soviet era.’

One consequences of this situation is that the academic profession is not very attractive early on in a career, when young researchers do not yet have enough publications. This may ‘negatively impact the inflow of young staff to academia,’ Prakhov believes. That’s why the incentive contract design ‘should clearly outline the activities performed by staff members in specific positions,’ he emphasized.

In fact, the big share of administrative load in total salary is a sign of high differentiation between executive staff and the others. On average, rectors and vice rectors earn 53% more than those who do not take such positions. Deans and their deputies get a 22-24% bonus on top of salary. Heads of departments and laboratories may earn 37% more than the other employees.

This also makes some sense. ‘Distinguished’ members of the teaching staff are usually knowledgeable and experienced employees. They are more productive in terms of publications in journals indexed in Scopus/WoS. From 2014-2016, 29% of department heads published such papers, with the average number per person standing at 0.68 in the same period. For teachers without administrative responsibilities, these figures were considerably lower: 18% and 0.56, respectively.

In terms of papers published in Russian and international journals, professors without administrative functions turned out to be more productive as researchers. They published an average of 1.74 papers in Russian academic journals in 2016 — as compared to 1.24 by department heads. The former published 0.25 papers per person in international journals, while the latter published 0.22.

The third important factor is that today’s incentive contracts reflect the low contribution of teaching in salary growth. This can have two explanations. First, most of the respondents are already working with students, which means that the variation in teaching productivity in the sample is low. Second, teaching load can be included in the core component of the contract.

The final factor that should be considered is that years of experience is an important control variable: as a human capital marker, it increases the salary. 

The situation with gender is ambiguous. There is no gender imbalance in terms of the pay at ‘status’ universities, while at ordinary institutions, the difference is obvious: male teachers get 32.5% more than their female colleagues.

One way or another, it turned out that incentive contracts work, but they work better at universities with a special status: research universities or universities participating in Project 5-100. At the same time, the incentive part of remuneration is also higher there than at conventional universities.

Why Should We Care?

The results of the study will help correct the shortcomings of the incentive contract system. The ‘unprofitability’ of teaching that was detected in the study may lead to its deterioration at a university. Publication pressure may provoke dismissal of staff members who have successfully worked with students for their entire careers but who have not done much research.

The conclusion is simple: teaching also deserves to be rewarded.

The quality of publications should be considered in incentive contracts; otherwise, dishonest practices will spread: paid papers or publications in ‘trash’ journals. This would by no means serve to position Russian researchers highly on the global academic market.

Ideally, university differentiation by salaries should be decreased. Ordinary institutions should probably receive additional financial support so that they can do more research and improve teaching. It is also important to understand what policy is optimal for universities, so that their professors are not put in a difficult position.

Authors of the Study:
Author: Olga Sobolevskaya, April 19, 2021