27 October 2016
Local universities need to beef up pay packages to attract global talents and make them stay. Photo: HKU
Local universities need to beef up pay packages to attract global talents and make them stay. Photo: HKU

Striking gold in the ivory tower

A handful of professions in Hong Kong are known for their exceptionally handsome remuneration: banker, stock broker, lawyer, public servant, to name a few.

Despite the gravy train, some of these lucrative jobs may be prone to economic upheavals. Many are also having second thoughts about joining the government, fearing the political divisions that are a fact of life in the city.

Then, how about an “iron rice bowl” with a big salary and guaranteed stability? If your academic records are impeccable, why not look for a job in the university?

At the bottom of all University of Hong Kong professoriate staff recruitment ads, you can find this paragraph:

“A highly competitive salary will be offered, in addition to leave and medical benefits. The appointments will attract a contract-end gratuity and university contribution to a retirement benefits scheme, totaling up to 15 percent of basic salary. Housing benefits will be provided as applicable.”

Exactly how competitive is the salary? A 2008 filing to the Legislative Council from the University Grants Committee may have the answer.

On the rank and salary scale of professorial staff at all UGC-funded institutions, monthly salary for HKU professors generally ranges between HK$70,325 and HK$98,500. For associate and assistant professors, HKU’s package is between HK$39,550 and HK$80,255.

There’s more. One fringe benefit is housing allowance. The amount may vary from one institution to another, but the latest Chinese University offer is between HK$14,400 and HK$24,000.

All summed up, an assistant professor at the Chinese University may take home a million dollars a year (annual salary of HK$700,000 plus housing allowance of HK$150,000 and other miscellaneous benefits).

Professors can also choose to live in staff quarters on or off campus, which just charge nominal fees.

Staff quarters at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology overlook Clear Water Bay, the Polytechnic University’s dormitories are in the heart of the bustling Tsim Sha Tsui, while HKU’s staff blocks and villas are in the tranquil Southern district featuring lush greenery and a magnificent seaview.

Don’t forget other non-cash perks that go with it, like winter and summer breaks, and social status.

Earning a million bucks is considered mediocre within the local academia, that is because the territory’s three top-tier institutions – HKU, CUHK and HKUST, all ranked among the world’s top 60 in the Quacquarelli Symonds list – each have more than 220 professors who can take home HK$1.8 million or more a year, according to a 2014 report by Wen Wei Po.

PolyU dangled HK$6.15 million on a professor, the highest that year.

Present salaries can only be higher, adjusted for inflation.

For comparison, we reported that Leung Chun-ying rakes in no less than HK$4.45 million of taxpayers’ money a year after a 2015 pay adjustment and the corresponding figure for Chief Secretary Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor is HK$3.96 million. Education minister Eddie Ng Hak-kim roughly makes HK$3.58 million a year.

The government’s estimate of salaries and expenses of the eight UGC-funded institutions is HK$16.9 billion in financial year 2015-16.

Then, how does that remuneration stack up against other key higher education destinations?

Since the government’s deregulation in 2003, UGC-funded institutions are free to decide the pay packages for their staff.

A related filing by the Audit Commission at that time found annual before-tax salaries of university non-clinical professors in Hong Kong was HK$1.23 million, more than two times their counterparts in the United Kingdom make (HK$513,000), as calculated by the data from Higher Education Funding Council for England. The amount was also over 50 percent higher than professors in the United States.

Now we know that knowledge and erudition really pay well in Hong Kong.

A lavish paycheck is key to attracting global talents, particularly when some may dread Hong Kong’s air pollution and cramped living conditions.

Another fact is that those internationally acclaimed professors who are making millions may rake in even more if they join private entities, and thus, universities must, constantly, beef up emoluments with guaranteed annual increment to make them stay.

Anyway, unrequited dedication to a career in the ivory tower never works in a free economy as professors are economic animals, too.

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Read more:

Govt paychecks: The big gravy train

Why Hong Kong and mainland doctors are not created equal

EJ Insight writer

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