Tenure and academic freedom in the news

Tenure: I'll take that as a no!The rather arcane principles of academic tenure and academic freedom, which have long featured on this blog, have recently moved close to the centre of industrial relations debate and political discussion. The National Strategy for Higher Education in Ireland (the Hunt Report) and the Public Service Agreement 2010-2014 (the Croke Park Agreement) seem to imperil both concepts. The current conception of academic tenure is threatened by proposals to make significant changes to academic employment conditions, and the current conception of academic freedom is undermined by recommendations that fundamental academic choices should be determined not by academics or institutions but at national level. It is unsurprising, therefore, that a recent meeting of Irish academics protested against the implementation of the Croke Park agreement in third-level institutions, and called for the defence of tenure and academic freedom.

Some colleges and universities have been strong in their defence of these concepts. For example, I have already discussed the provisions of Trinity’s 2010 Statutes protecting tenure and academic freedom. Moreover, the Trinity’s Council and Board have recently approved a detailed and progressive Policy on Academic Freedom. I have also discussed similar statutory provisions in other Irish universities. To that, I can now add the provisions of NUI Maynooth‘s statutes relating to tenure. Chapter III of the NUIM Statutes covers Employee Disciplinary Matters, Termination of Employment and Tenure of Officers; it contains a reasonably comprehensive set of procedures relating to discipline and termination; and it then provides


Subject to the satisfactory completion of any probationary period provided for in an Officer’s contract of employment that Officer of the University shall have tenure and these Statutes shall be construed accordingly.

And that’s it. It’s not very helpful, to say the least. There is no further definition of “officers” in this context, and no guidance as to how to construe the procedures relating to discipline and termination in the light of this provision. Nevertheless, it does meet the obligation stated in section 25(6) of the Universities Act, 1997 that the statutes of a university should “provide for the tenure of officers”, where “officers” means “permanent, full-time members of the academic staff of the university”.

The provisions of the Universities Act, 1997 and of the various universities’ statutes means that the abolition of tenure and academic freedom to give effect to the Croke Park Agreement and the Hunt Report will require substantial legislation on the part of the government. Of course, if Corke Part and Hunt influence the education policies of the political parties in the forthcoming election, these will be matters on which agreement can be achieved in the negotiations for the programme for government. As a consequence, it is not unlikely that the incoming government will be committed to the implementation of the thrust of the Hunt Report. So, the threats to academic freedom and tenure are not about to go away any time soon.

The United Kingdom abolished tenure in the Education Reform Act 1988; sections 202 to 208 created new academic disciplinary structures overseen by the University Commissioners provided for in Schedule 11 to the Act; these provisions specifically allow for termination of academic contracts by reason of financial redundancy (see s203(1)(a)); and the disciplinary structures were further amended by section 46 of the Higher Education Act 2004 (indeed, that Act set up a new scheme relating to student complaints, administered by the Office of the Independent Adjudicator for Higher Education).

Although the principle of tenure was abolished by the 1988 Act, the principle of academic freedom seemed to have been retained, after a fashion. Section 202(2)(a) provides that, in exercising their functions, the University Commissioners must have regard to the need

to ensure that academic staff have freedom within the law to question and test received wisdom, and to put forward new ideas and controversial or unpopular opinions, without placing themselves in jeopardy of losing their jobs or privileges they may have at their institutions; …

This subsection was inserted, against government resistance, by the House of Lords on the initiative of Roy Jenkins. However, since this is immediately qualified in s202(2)(a) by an equal regard to the need to enable universities to carry out their functions “efficiently and economically”, it is not as convincing a protection of academic freedom as that provided in Ireland by section 14 of the Universities Act, 1997. Moreover, this qualification, coupled with the rules relating to discipline and redundancy, sounded the death knell as a matter of UK law for whatever remained of academic tenure after R v Hull University ex parte Page [1993] AC 682 (sub nom R v Lord President of the Privy Council ex parte Page [1992] UKHL 12 (03 December 1992)).

In 1998, Antony Dnes and Jonathan Seaton conducted a ten-year assessment of the impact of the 1988 Act: “The reform of academic tenure in the United Kingdom” (1998) 18(4) International Review of Law and Economics 491. They concluded that there was statistical evidence that before the reforms, leading universities were more active in recruiting at the senior level of (full) Professor, whilst the 1980s and early 1990s were characterized by the promotion of younger, less established academics. A recent article in THE reinforced the view that the title of professor is no longer the badge of the respected elder statesman; it is increasingly associated with the youthful high-flyer. It is as if title-inflation is compensation for less job security.

In the UK, recent university cuts could mean that many universities will close, many others will be forced to close departments and cut teaching budgets. Cambridge has resisted these developments. Last year, revisions to the Cambridge statutes which would have diluted tenure even further were rejected (similarly, in the US, the University of Louisiana is considering a similar development), and earlier this month, dons held a silent protest in opposition to government plans. However, even there, cutbacks may spell an end to the famous one-on-one tutorial.

The abolition of tenure has made these developments so much more likely, and if it is abolished here, similar outcomes will inevitably follow.

Bonus links: if you’ve made it this far, here is a selection of tenure cartoons, and here‘s another selection; other cartoons are here, here, here, and here; here‘s one for the internet generation; here’s a consideration of a video on why you want to get a PhD in the Humanities (but here’s a more serious – and apocalyptic – Economist article on the issue). Finally, here’s a characteristically witty piece in the Cronk of Higher Education: Faculty Member Denied Tenure: Too Popular, Research Too Accessible.