A report published by the Association of Commonwealth Universities (ACU) in December, based on its survey of academic salary scales and associated benefits in 46 institutions across seven Commonwealth countries over the past one year, shows that academic salaries in South Africa have grown by 51% - the highest among countries surveyed - since 2006-07. While this could be partly attributable to high levels of inflation, increased investment in higher education and restructuring efforts within the sector are also responsible for the growth.

In absolute terms, academic staff in Australia (at all levels except lecturer) reported the highest average salaries among those reported by responding countries, after cost of living has been factored into the equation. South Africa ranks second overall, with Canada and UK at third and fourth places respectively.

However, this ranking does not take into account academic salaries in Singapore for which the sample was not found to be material or representative. Had it been included, Singapore would have led the list with overall midpoint average salaries (the arithmetic mean of the top and bottom of each scale averaged across all responses) 30% above Australia.

Among the seven countries - namely Singapore, Australia, New Zealand, Malaysia, UK, Canada and South Africa - South Africa also had the highest salary scales relative to national Gross Domestic Product per capita, with overall academic salary average being seven times the per capita GDP.

In terms of other benefits, provision of discretionary bonuses or market adjustments were found to have increased significantly from the previous survey and is offered at 63% of institutions, compared to 41.5% noted in the last survey during 2006-2007.

The report also finds that the gaps between overall average salary levels in most of these nations have significantly narrowed since the last survey; the convergence could be partly due to stiff international competition for world class academic staff but also indicates efforts within the individual countries to improve incentives for those in academia.

The 2009-10 ACU survey - the seventh in the series - compared salary scales from point of entry up to professorial level using a purchasing power parity conversion rate - the Big Mac Index - expressing all salaries in US dollars. This conversion factor incorporates the cost of living, to ensure that the salaries purchase the same goods and services in compared countries.