Academic freedom may be compromised if the Government adopts a proposal to de-link university pay structures from the civil service, a staff union has warned. The pay scale for university staff and teachers has traditionally been pegged to that of civil servants, but Secretary for Education and Manpower Fanny Law Fan Chiu-fun last month told the Legislative Council education panel the long-held practice could be scrapped. The Federation of Higher Education Staff Associations has now written to Ms Law requesting an answer on whether the Government will go ahead with the plan. Federation chairman Professor Shum Kar-ping said the change would deal a further blow to teaching staff morale, which he said had already been affected by dwindling university funding. 'If universities are run like private corporations, then few people may be willing to teach unpopular subjects which may pay less, or academics may toe the line of administrators to get better treatment,' Professor Shum said. 'This could put academic freedom at risk.' His federation represents staff associations from all government-funded institutions, apart from the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology (HKUST). Long-serving administrative staff or teachers could have their salaries slashed should the peg be removed, and a wide pay gap may occur, he said. An Education and Manpower Bureau spokesman said Ms Law's comments had referred only to a preliminary idea, in line with a comprehensive review now under way over the pay structure of the civil service. University heads' opinions would be sought. Like civil servants, university employees have had their salaries frozen for the past three years, but Professor Shum said the present system ensured fairness and stability. Some locally hired staff are known to be dissatisfied with better terms offered to teachers hired from overseas. The de-pegging idea has been welcomed by academics who have previously taught in overseas universities offering salaries compatible with rates in the commercial sector. The head of HKUST's computer science department, Professor Roland Chin Tai-hong, who taught at the University of Wisconsin before joining HKUST eight years ago, said it would be hard to attract top scholars to teach in Hong Kong or keep good ones here if they were not paid at market rates. He said a top-up fund could subsidise extra pay for teachers in the event of pay scales being de-pegged. 'Only mediocre teachers will come if the pay structure is not changed to allow for greater flexibility,' he said. 'A market-driven pay system is in place in many overseas countries such as the US and Canada. 'From what I have heard from colleagues, it seems most HKUST teaching staff support the de-pegging idea.' The starting salary for a lecturer is now around $35,000, while a full professor, whose pay is pegged to level D1 on the civil service pay scale - the entry point for directorate level - earns a minimum of $100,000. According to Professor Chin, however, computer professionals could make twice or three times more than academics locally, while the salaries of American academics in large universities could be 10 to 40 per cent higher than those of local counterparts. Professor Shum said salary scales were higher than other countries in the region, such as Singapore and Taiwan.