“Public gathering” called on academic freedom

The Irish academic news resource website, 9thlevelireland, yesterday carried a letter signed by 160 academics calling for a meeting to discuss threats, as the signatories see it, to academic freedom across Irish higher education. This meeting, which is described as being ‘open to all academics’, is to be held on Saturday, January 22, at 2pm, in the Gresham Hotel in Dublin.

The initiative for this was taken by Paddy Healy, a lecturer in the Dublin Institute of Technology and a former President of the Teachers Union of Ireland, which inter alia organises staff in the Institutes of Technology. In his blog he has expanded on the reasons for his fears concerning academic freedom. These are based principally on the agreement reached last year between the Irish government and the public sector trade unions (the Croke Park agreement), under which various changes in working practice and in contracts of employment are to be negotiated. In the blog Paddy Healy publishes a document said to have been issued by NUI Galway setting out proposed changes and reforms. As far as I am aware, the university has not made any public comment on this, so I cannot say whether the document represents its position, or what its aims are in any negotiations that may be taking place. But if we take the document at face value, it clearly envisages a very different kind of employment contract and higher levels of staff flexibility.

From what I can gather, the process of initiating the reform processes envisaged under the Croke Park agreement has been left by the Irish Universities Association to individual institutions, and there is no sector-wide position on what changes might be involved. This may be a risky approach, and it would be hard to imagine that very different contractual frameworks or terms of employment could be sustained between the Irish universities and colleges. Not having a common approach also makes it difficult to avoid rumours and fears circulating through the system. I cannot help feeling that a more open, nation-wide discussion process would make more sense.

On the other hand, it would also be a mistake for academics to resist all change, or to allow the impression to emerge that this is their position. There continue to be very good reasons for preserving intellectual autonomy and academic freedom, but academics must also be aware of, and show sensitivity to, the general movement towards greater accountability in society. The risk is always that accountability is seen as meaning bureaucratic control, and to avoid that being the result of current reforms academics, like the universities, need to engage in constructive discussions. As part of this process, resistance to measures such as measuring of full economic costs is hugely counter-productive and damaging to the staff position. A radicalisation of these discussions on either side can easily prompt wider public hostility towards higher education, an outcome that would put the entire system at risk.

All parties involved in this should proceed with some care, and with as much openness as possible. Rumour is the enemy of success.

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11 Comments on ““Public gathering” called on academic freedom”

  1. Ernie Ball Says:

    With regard to Full Economic Costing exercises, the truth is that, no matter how badly the government or the public or the administrators really, really want them to be real, are nothing but makey-uppy numbers based on metaphysically confused ideas. I’ve made that case at length here:

    http://ernieballsblog.wordpress.com/2010/09/30/full-economic-fiction/

    You know, my daughter really likes unicorns. She loves them! The fact that they don’t exist is no impediment to her love. She might even, in a moment of youthful high-spirits, demand that everyone she knows offer a full accounting of all the unicorns they’ve seen. When I point out that there’s no such thing, she says “I didn’t ask you to adjudicate [what can I say? she’s precocious?] on the existence of unicorns; I asked you to enumerate how many you’ve seen.” I can assume you’d advise everyone to play along because my daughter is in no mood to hear the truth.

    As for “accountability,” where in the Croke Park agreement does it say anything about “accountability”? Indeed, what does “accountability” have to do with these implementation plans? And how is “accountability” supposed to be, as you seem to think, at cross-purposes with academic freedom?

    Finally, Ferdinand, I understand that the Board of Trinity College has just issued a statement upholding academic freedom (which isn’t so bold, given that it’s enshrined in law) and tenure as necessary to its protection. Do you agree that academic freedom cannot be preserved in the absence of meaningful tenure?

    You can find the UCD implementation plan here:

    http://sites.google.com/site/ucddoc/

    • anna notaro Says:

      Ernie, just to add an international dimension to your point about academic fredom and tenure, as you might know, in the American context such issues are often at the core of heated discussions, this old article http://www.ericdigests.org/1999-3/freedom.htm
      argues convincingly that academic freedom and tenure are two sides of the same coin, it also links them up with students feedback (topic of a previous post, as I recall)…interesting narrative developing on this blog right now..

  2. jfryar Says:

    Just to stir the pot, there are probably hundreds of un-tenured, temporary contract, postdoc research minions like myself trying desperately to forge an academic career who actually wouldn’t mind seeing changes to the employment contracts and concepts of tenure within the university sector. But maybe that’s just me!

    • Ernie Ball Says:

      What changes did you have in mind?

    • Al Says:

      JFryar

      You have an important point.
      Is it fair that the priviledges of one section result in the poor treatment of another?
      Will have to think about that…

      • Ernie Ball Says:

        The people attacking tenure today are the very same people who are perfectly delighted to see contract staff and post-docs exploited. Indeed, they want to generalise that exploitation. If that’s supposed to be an argument against tenure, it’s extraordinarily weak but typical of Irish begrudgery.

        There was tenure long before there was exploitation of contract staff. Accordingly, it’s a sophism to draw links between the two.

        • jfryar Says:

          Ernie, what is a sophism is to conclude that abandoning the concept of tenure automatically implies a system of rolling contracts and exploitation. Industry seems to work fine without tenure and many tend to invest more in staff development than universities do.

          Furthermore, the corollary to your argument runs as follows: those who tend to shout loudest about the importance of tenure and ‘academic freedom’ are typically the ones who have both tenure and ‘academic freedom’.

          Not unlike how bankers will always tell you how important those bonuses are …

        • Al Says:

          I think I asked a question about fairness, a simple question at that….

  3. jfryar Says:

    Al, I don’t think the issue is one of fairness but I’ll have to explain that.

    I don’t feel ‘exploited’ as a postdoc and I personally hate the whinging, feel-sorry-for-me, arguments put forward by ‘contract staff’. I, like everyone else, made choices that led me down this career path. There might be a dead-end up the road but that’s the chance I took. If I don’t like it, I can get out and maybe go work in industry or teaching instead.

    For me, I want to conduct research, apply for funding for that research and teach students something about the subject I love. The contract that I sign to enable me to do that is less important to me than being able to do that. If that means I never get tenure, if I sit on rolling contracts that might not be renewed if I don’t meet certain specified ‘measurables’, I don’t particularly care.

    I don’t see why doing what I’d like to do should be protected in a way that isn’t true for industry. I don’t believe my contract should render me immune from changes that effect everyone else in society.

    Fairness, for me, isn’t the issue. Creating a flexible system of employment that isn’t rigidly fixed in some archaic notion of ‘tenure’ and ‘academic freedom’ is.

  4. cormac Says:

    Interesting discussion. Ferdinand, re your sentence “The risk is always that accountability is seen as meaning bureaucratic control” I would counter that the risk is that the search for increased accountability often ends up as excessive and counterproductive bureaucratic control….think HSE


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