Here, it is an honour to work for nothing

May 25, 2007

Jason Mitchell reports from Argentina on the plight of 'ad honorem' academics forced into working for free.

Next time you feel underpaid, spare a thought for the 32,000 Argentine academics who work for nothing.

In common with other countries in the developing world, it is a tradition for many university teachers in Argentina to work for free or to do pro bono work in addition to their normal teaching duties.

Argentinians use the Latin phrase ad honorem , meaning "out of honour", to describe teachers who work in this way, but it is a term that serves only to rile the trade unionists campaigning to end the system and see that all all academics are paid for their work.

"There is no honour in institutions that oblige their workers to do work 'out of honour'," said Horacio Fern ndez, assistant secretary of the trade union Asociaci"n de Docentes de la Universidad de Buenos Aires (Aduba).

"We do not accept the continuation of this 'method' of work in which working teachers themselves finance a system that at the same time excludes them. Pay all those who work out of honour. Pay according to the work carried out."

The vast majority of the 32 state universities in Argentina have teachers who work pro bono . The exact number of academics working in this way is a bone of contention between the trade unions and the Government because of lax record-keeping by the universities.

But according to Aduba, the total is about 32,000, of which the University of Buenos Aires has by far the most: some 20,000 teachers who work pro bono , of whom some 9,400 are attached to the university's school of medicine.

Other universities with high numbers of teachers who work for free include the National University of La Plata (1,800), the National University of Rosario (1,700) and the National University of C"rdoba (1,500).

According to the Government, however, there are only 10,000 academics in the whole country who work pro bono .

Alberto Dibbern, the Minister for University Policy, told The Times Higher : "If it's true that there are 20,000 teachers at UBA who work for free, as well as the 25,000 teachers who are paid - those we definitely know about - with a regular student population of about 200,000 UBA would have one of the highest academic-student ratios of the world."

He said that when he first took office as minister he found it hard to believe that UBA did not have a proper record of the number of academics who work for free.

"UBA is in a state of chaos," he added. "There are no formal contracts for academics who work pro bono . They are given an appointment, but this does not specify a period of time, so perhaps many academics who once worked pro bono no longer do so. They may be included on some lists and not on others."

At some faculties in Argentina's biggest universities, it is the normal route for a salaried academic to start as a non-paid assistant.

The practice of working pro bono has always been part of the Argentine university system, but it has grown since the 1990s as total students numbers have increased.

Eduardo Rieiro, who teaches administrative law on a pro bono basis at UBA's faculty of law, said: "The great majority of academics in this faculty begin in this way.

"Roughly speaking, you have to do four years of non-paid teaching before you can secure a salaried position. In this faculty, which is very prestigious, the salaried positions are highly sought-after. For us, it's a vocation, and it's useful to have contact with the students."

In common with the vast majority of academics who work pro bono in the law faculty (some 3,000, according to Aduba), Mr Rieiro also practises as a lawyer.

"Perhaps the law faculty is unique among the schools in the sense that most academics who work there pro bono can get jobs that pay reasonably well in the private sector. That could not be said of academics working for free in, say, the philosophy or anthropology schools.

"In fact, in the law faculty there is a waiting list of people who want to teach for free. The school has even closed the admission of new academics."

In the law faculty, unpaid academics normally give 90-minute classes twice a week. The number of students per class can vary from ten to 60, depending on the popularity of the course. Expenses are not paid, although the faculty has introduced free car parking for teachers who work pro bono.

Mariano Ezequiel Heller, a teacher of constitutional law in the same faculty, said: "One of the reasons we teach in this way is that we realise that there are severe restraints on the faculty's budget.

"We want to give something back to the school that taught us. It would be better if we were paid, of course, but in the circumstances... "I am not optimistic that unpaid teachers will ever receive a reasonable remuneration in the future. The truth is that public universities in Argentina have so many priorities: IT, student scholarships, lighting.

"The university system would have a severe problem if we all suddenly stopped teaching, that is certain."

The lowest grade of salaried academic is called a teaching assistant and is normally studying for a masters or doctorate at the same university. People at this level receive 200 pesos (£33) a month for 20 hours of teaching work (£1.60 per hour). A full-time academic with ten years of experience will earn about 2,500 pesos (£411 pounds) a month.

Sandra Fernández, who teaches zoology pro bono at the faculty of natural sciences at the National University of La Plata, said: "My responsibilities are the same as those of a paid assistant. I put in the hours needed to prepare the classes to a high standard, including the practical work. I have to organise many things from home.

"It's a good question as to why I do it for nothing. The simple answer is: I like what I do.

"I suppose I have colleagues who also do it out of pleasure and, furthermore, as part of their academic development because it is important to show experience when it comes to competing for salaried teaching posts and the allocation of scholarships."

The Government is currently in talks with the trade unions about increasing the national budget for state universities by 30 million pesos (£5 million) this year so that pro bono teachers can receive a salary.

However, the trade unions say the amount needed is 205 million pesos (£34 million) a year, which would give every pro bono teacher a salary of 533 pesos (£88) a month.

The Ministry for Education plans to carry out a nationwide census of academics to find out the exact number of academics working pro bono .


Maria Florencia Cendali has been teaching sociology pro bono at the University of Buenos Aires for three years.

She said: "It should be made clear that all teachers who work in private and public universities get miserable salaries that do not reflect their work or the social and economic situation of our country.

"As to why many academics work for free, I think you must distinguish between universities, faculties and positions, because the motives vary.

"In my experience, most do it as a way in, to obtain contacts for other jobs, to have some cachet in front of other professionals and in the hope of one day acquiring a paid position."

Since 2004, she has worked as a pro bono teacher in the social sciences faculty, spending four hours a week teaching plus several hours more preparing for classes.

"From the moment I made the decision that teaching was the way in which I wanted to realise my profession, sociology, I knew that working pro bono would be the beginning of the path I had to take to put this decision into practice," she said.

"I began to teach for free as an assistant when I was halfway through my university studies.

"Although some universities have fewer teachers who work pro bono than others, this kind of work has come to be seen as something natural and normal."


* There are 38 state universities and 60 private ones

* The state universities have a total of 900,000 students and the private ones 400,000

* About 40 per cent of young people attend university

* The University of Buenos Aires has about 200,000 students

* The student dropout rate at UBA is 21 to 22 per cent

* The total number of salaried academics nationwide is 115,000

* There are no student loans in the country, and only 10,000 students receive a scholarship. Otherwise, their families pay or they work

* It is common for students to take up to seven or eight years to complete their studies

* The total higher education budget is 4.3 billion pesos (£708 million) for this year.

Source: Ministry for Education, Argentina

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