A COUPLE of weeks ago, auditor-general Odysseas Michaelides appeared before the House oversight committee to discuss the audit office’s special report on the University of Cyprus (UCy) for the years 2019 and 2020. What was said at the meeting created the impression that the university was a den of corruption and greed in which academics were making a financial killing at the expense of the Cypriot taxpayer as the EU.
Needless to say, Michaelides had not identified any illegality but, as has become his habit, he was expressing his personal views about the earnings of certain academics which he deemed way too high. These earnings were from research programmes awarded by the EU and in the case of the UCy medical school from operations carried out at public hospitals. Nothing irregular had happened, but Michaelides personally objected to these academics who were already on high salaries collecting additional money.
Is the issuing of value judgements, such as these part of the auditor-general’s constitutional responsibilities? He has also criticised the government for paying rent he deemed too high for government buildings and for renting instead of building its own premises. This expressing of personal value judgement was perfectly illustrated by his censure of the UCy paying the Nobel prize winner for economics, Professor Christoforos Pissarides as a member of its faculty.
He claimed the university had acted illegally in extending Pissarides’ contract to 2026, despite having reached retirement age in 2015, before expressing his personal objection to the professor being paid €100,000 a year for giving a lecture every six months and not participating in research programmes. He also criticised the fact that the university was paying to have him as a faculty member so it could rise in the world university rankings, ludicrously, suggesting this was deceiving rating agencies.
This is standard practice at all universities and it would not have been unreasonable for UCy to pay three times as much to have a Nobel Award winner on its faculty, even if he is past retirement age and gives just two lectures a year. Does Michaelides seriously think Pissarides is just another public employee?
Instead of sticking to auditing Michaelides talks like a populist politician. His objections to medical school doctors being paid extra to perform operations is another example of this populism. These doctors are specialists and should get paid for performing difficult operations at state hospitals, even if they are on high salaries. This is good for patients and Okypy would have paid a surgeon to carry out the operation anyway. Should it exclude medical school doctors because they are already on high salaries, or perhaps Okypy should ask for tenders for surgeries and give the job to the surgeon who made the lowest bid and is on the lowest salary.
The problem is that deputies embrace Michaelides’ crude populism and are now discussing the idea of placing ceilings on what academics could earn from research programmes or carrying out operations in hospitals. Research funds may benefit academics, but they also create jobs and improve the standing and standard of the university. For the auditor-general this is irrelevant. All that matters is that their annual income is at a level he personally considers acceptable.