Pay rise for science teachers not practical 

Obed Kambasu

What you need to know:

  • To his credit, President Museveni has been a consistent advocate of the Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) subjects, and for good reasons too.

Like many Ugandans, I have followed the recent debate on higher pay for science teachers. 
To his credit, President Museveni has been a consistent advocate of the Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) subjects, and for good reasons too.

 The importance of science and technology in national development cannot be overemphasised.  It is true that we need more doctors in our hospitals, and that the ‘Buy Uganda, Build Uganda’ strategy can only make sense if we have the necessary human resources in terms of engineers and technologists to produce quality products. Indeed, attaining our much-admired middle-income status hinges on how effectively we harness the wonders of science and technology. But sadly, that is where the story ends.

It really shouldn’t require a rocket scientist – yes scientist – to see that the idea of discriminated pay for teachers is in bad faith. The whole narrative has been clouded with some rather unfortunate arguments, e.g., that teachers should not complain because even in hospitals surgeons are paid more than administrators. 

What such arguments do not recognise is that whereas surgeons and hospital administrators work in the same building, they perform different duties. However, a physics teacher does exactly the same job as a history teacher!

Over the past few years, I have been privileged to work as a researcher on issues of industrial action, employee performance, and motivation. Research and intuition tell me that President Museveni’s one-man crusade for higher salaries for science teachers is a well-calculated move to demobilise teachers. It is a crafty divide and rule strategy that is meant to create classes among teachers so that they will (hopefully) find it difficult to reach consensus on issues like engaging in industrial action. 

The idea is to make science teachers the in-house ambassadors against industrial action. This is an old strategy that has been used in several other African countries (Zimbabwe and Nigeria), but in the end, it backfired and the same will happen in Uganda. In simple Ugandan slang: it will end in tears. Premium tears!

Here is why: Firstly, in Ugandan primary schools, there is no clear demarcation between Science and Arts teachers. It is not uncommon to find a teacher of Primary Three Mathematics also teaching Social Studies in Primary Four. So how will the new Museveni strategy treat such a teacher?  Secondly, research has consistently shown that employees go on strike not because they want more money (as many people think), but because of something called ‘relative deprivation’. 

In brief, employees only engage in industrial action when they believe they are being paid less relative to comparable others. The Global Teacher Status Index 2018 showed that Ugandan teachers are the “worst paid” in the world. But still, even Ugandan teachers do not go on strike because of this poor pay. 

They engage in strikes because they think politicians and other government bureaucrats are paid much more than them, while doing less. So, by giving science teachers a higher pay, President Museveni is creating a more practical referent group. 

Arts teachers will feel more justified to engage in industrial action because they are paid less than their work colleagues. The flip side to this is that if you then increase the salaries of Arts teachers, the Science teachers will also demand for more because the standard will have been set. More importantly, teachers’ industrial action will be more difficult to detect and to deal with. 

We shall have situations where schools will be partially closed – with Arts teachers going on strike, and Science teachers continuing to work. 

In the end, even the Science teachers will feel cheated given that their Arts colleagues will continue receiving their smaller salaries even when they don’t work. So, the Science teachers will find it more sensible to also engage in industrial action. And Mr Museveni will have created a vicious cycle that he will not be able to stop. In brief, it will end in tears!

 The writer is a Ugandan researcher based in Germany