Tenure – but for whom?
I am sure that readers of this blog do not need me to rehearse the arguments for tenure in higher education. Whether you agree with it or not, it has been one of the principles underpinning higher education, and it is generally assumed that only tenure can sufficiently protect the freedom of academics to pursue knowledge and disseminate it without fearing the personal consequences.
However, what has always seemed obvious and necessary to most academics has not necessarily looked that way to everyone else. In America, for example, there has been a growing public debate, in which perhaps a majority of contributors have argued that tenure has stifled academic innovation and prevented universities from operating flexibly to adapt to changing circumstances.
I’m not intending to trawl through all that, but one particular argument has caught my eye. One of the more vocal critics of tenure has been the journalist and academic Naomi Schaefer Riley; it was a key theme in her book The faculty lounges : and other reasons why you won’t get the college education you paid for. One of the points she made did cause me to think: that tenure has pushed a large number, perhaps the majority, of academics into insecure employment. How so? Well, as over recent years the resources of universities and colleges have declined, they have been unable to risk the financial commitment of large numbers of tenured staff, and so they have resorted to hiring people in ever larger numbers of temporary, casual and otherwise insecure positions. If you think that’s a weak argument, then just take a minute to look at recent recruitment statistics on this side of the Atlantic. Most universities over here now also rely on a disproportionate number of young academics with virtually no job security. In fact, legislation designed to reduce that condition by giving part time employees contracts of indefinite duration after they have been in employment for a minimum period has actually exacerbated this, as colleges decide to terminate their posts before the threshold kicks in.
The truth is, universities are becoming organizations in which there is a reducing enclave of protected, permanent, tenured academics – generally now ageing fast – and a peripheral but critical community of temporary and unprotected academics who are now often the real workers of the academy. And as resources continue to decline, there is no realistic chance that this will change any time soon; indeed in Ireland it was even made worse by the appalling ’employment control framework’, which actually prohibited the hiring of any tenured staff.
We all need to think again.