Egyptian universities seem to be heading for a major confrontation. Last week, more than 4,000 faculty members of various Egyptian universities met, perhaps for the first time in their history, and agreed to call a strike if their demands were not promptly met. The demands are as simple as they are clear. All those currently occupying top university posts, mostly members of the now dissolved National Democratic party, should be removed from their posts and fair elections held to replace them. A new salary scale should also be implemented. The huge income disparities between faculty and top positions are no longer acceptable. While the monthly salary of a young lecturer with a PhD doesnt exceed 1,500 Egyptian pounds (around $250), a senior administrative position may have an income running into hundreds of thousands of Egyptian pounds, although the exact figures are a closely guarded secret. In a meeting with the faculty of arts last March, the president of Alexandria University was challenged to declare the incomes of top university officials, which were reported to be massive. She declined to respond, only stating that such rumours were exaggerated. The presidents of many other universities similarly refused to divulge how and where university funds were allocated. For many decades now, the Egyptian government has blatantly and deliberately interfered in every aspect of university life. Top posts were filled through direct government appointments. Efficiency, academic excellence and leadership qualities were not recognised as prerequisites for these jobs. To become a university president or a faculty dean you only needed to be blessed with a single quality: willingness to do the bidding of higher authorities. If you were required to manipulate student union elections, quash student protests or put a lid on the legitimate demands of staff members for better pay, you simply did what was required without much soul-searching, hesitation or argument. In Swiftian terms, you needed to be the perfect rope dancer who was willing to jump the highest to please his superiors. Those who excelled in the art of jumping would manage not only to get the coveted positions but would also be showered with accolades, tributes and material gains. But now, instead of accolades, the rope dancers are at the receiving end of angry protests. Following the ousting of President Hosni Mubarak in February, students throughout Egypt protested and held sit-ins calling for the resignation of those deans who were involved in abuses against them. A serious crisis was averted when Prime Minister Essam Sharaf called on students and faculty members everywhere not to disrupt the academic year. He gave his solemn word, in return, that all top university positions would be considered vacant at the end of the academic year in July 2011 and a revised salary scale for faculty would be applied. Unfortunately, none of these promises have been honoured. For seven months, the government, still in the Mubarak modus operandi, has been stalling, quibbling and pursuing its policy of giving no more than promises. After a long series of twists and turns, of pseudo-questionnaires and meaningless polls, nothing has been granted except partial elections for posts that have become naturally vacant. Those whose terms are not up will continue in their posts for the time being. As for salaries, nothing has materialised except the promise to form yet more committees to investigate pay increases. These will eventually make recommendations which in turn will need to be approved (or not) by the powers that be. In other words, universities are gloriously back to square one, without any real change to speak of and very little prospect of change in the future. The current crisis highlights the frightening split between the decision makers and the rank and file. The protests that are also shaking private institutions in Cairo, such as the American and German universities (AUC and GUC), reveal a similar split, even though the root cause of disaffection may be different, with private university students protesting against a steep rise in tuition fees and in solidarity with university employees who are calling for fairer wages. To avert a strike when the academic year begins in October, both the government and the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces will need to understand that the rope dancers have to go, and along with them all the failed educational policies of the Mubarak regime. These policies have turned our universities into a human garage for students, where they are kept from the labour market for a few years and later discharged with few skills and much resentment. Without reasonable salaries members of staff can neither teach nor carry out research properly. This is the message that the faculty members meeting in Cairo are sending to the current authorities. The sooner they get the message the better. The Guardian