Cash offer to keep professors at work

March 7, 1997

FERENC Takacs moonlights from his teaching job in the school of English and American studies at Budapest's ELTE University in the most literal sense.

Most weeks the expert in Irish literature treads the boards as the English ambassador in Budapest's Kamra Theatre's production of Tom Stoppard's Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead.

The guest role, which he has been performing for the past two years, is arguably not too far removed from his formal teaching and research duties at Hungary's leading classical university, nor does it interfere with his day job. But the same cannot be said of many of the second or third jobs that many academics here have.

Research by the Civic Education Project shows that average central and east European academics spend just over half their working time at their main job, 28 per cent at other university or research jobs and 18 per cent on non-academic work.

According to a nine-country survey in Education for the Transition, a study funded by the Mellon, Ford and Smith-Richardson foundations, Hungary was among the top three "offenders".

The average Hungarian academic spends a quarter of his or her working week earning money from jobs unrelated to university matters. In Poland the figure is 34 per cent and Estonia 28 per cent, with all other east European countries, including Russia (15 per cent), recording much lower rates.

The reasons for the moonlighting in Hungary are much the same as elsewhere: subsistence wages and poor working conditions.

Unlike the rest of the region the Hungarian government is doing something about the "internal brain drain". Last month applications closed for the first of the annual cash awards under the Szechenyi professorships, named after Count Istvan Szechenyi, the intellectual motor of Hungary's early 19th-century political reforms. The professorships are enhanced salary packages made available to 500 mid-career PhD-level teachers in a rolling programme over the next four years.

The awards, which have attracted 3,000 applications from the country's estimated 5,200 PhD or equivalent academics, is worth about Pounds 500 a month but stipulates that winners must not take on work unrelated to their posts.

For a mid-career lecturer or assistant professor on an average 50,000 forints a month (Pounds 200) the professorships offer the beginnings of parity with academics in Western Europe.

But Gyorgy Gereby, an associate professor of philosophy at ELTE on the working party that devised the awards, admits that the realities of Hungarian university life and the Szechenyi criteria are likely to cause problems after the first tranche of winners is announced next week on the anniversary of the 1848 revolution.

"It was impossible to raise salaries across the board so it was decided that applicants must be under 55, have a PhD or doctorate and at least five years' publishing and teaching experience. The Szechenyi programme will undoubtedly create a lot of tensions, that's pretty clear. University life is crowded here, with academic staff sharing offices and secretaries, so there is bound to be resentment among those who don't win the professorships."

But Hungary is ready for the controversy, Dr Gereby says, having already imposed a rationalisation programme involving staff cuts of 10 per cent two years ago.

"One immediate consequence of offering the Szechenyi professorships is that the Hungarian Academy of Science has used this as a basis for pressing the government to raise the level of their bonuses, hopefully this will lead to more concessions for other groups, although I'm afraid that discontent at some level is unavoidable."

Dr Takacs, a 49-year-old senior lecturer at ELTE, is just the sort of mid-career academic at which professorships are aimed.

But Dr Takacs, who combines academic work with freelance television and radio journalism, consultancy and lecturing at a couple of other universities, is critical.

"I think it is a humiliating shame to be offered the possibility of humbly applying for the kind of money a middle-range academic should be on anyway. We should be taking to the streets protesting that everybody should be paid at the Szechenyi level, demanding the right to be paid at a level commensurate with our skills and experience."

Andras Derenyi, a researcher at Janus Pannonius University in Pecs, said: "The Szechenyi grant will cause big problems since the winners have to stop moonlighting. But many scholars moonlight inside the system, giving lectures in another university or college."

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