Posted tagged ‘academic tenure’

IUA Statement on the Croke Park Public Service Agreement

February 5, 2011

This is the full text of the statement by the Irish Universities Association on the implementation of the Public Service Agreement 2010-2014 (the Croke Park agreement) in the universities.


The purpose of this paper is to clarify the universities’ position in respect of our implementation plan under the’Croke Park’ Public Service Agreement (PSA).


The Public Service Agreement (PSA) was formulated against a backdrop of the worst financial crisis in the history of the state. The Agreement is aimed at improving efficiency and quality so that public services can continue to be delivered with the reduced resources available to the Exchequer. Since the conclusion of the agreement, we know that the state’s financial position has worsened considerably, leading to the agreement with the EU, ECB and IMF, of the four year national recovery plan. The current position re-emphasises the need to implement the PSA. This has been stressed by the Chair of the National Implementation Body.

Concerns Expressed about the University Plans The PSA explicitly provides for a review of academic contracts and this has been further emphasised in national policy by the recently published HE Strategy. The focus of the concerns expressed to date is that the provisions of contractual revision represent an attack on academic freedom and tenure and thus the very essence of the university.

In our view this is emphatically not the case.

These proposals must be viewed in the context of both the wider strategic stance of the universities, and the real intent underlying their specific content. These two aspects are elaborated on below.

Overall strategic position of the universities

There is a widely held view that universities which have a strong capacity for self determination are both more efficient and effective. We are fully committed to maintaining this position, and, indeed enhancing it. We made our position clear in our interactions with, and inputs to, the Higher Education Strategy group and the resultant Strategy (National Strategy for Higher Education to 2030) reflects this.

The Strategy does discuss at length the balance between institutional self determination and accountability to the state and society in general. It is appropriate that this be discussed, not least given the current crisis. There has been deep-rooted societal questioning of the causes of our economic collapse. This has included reflection on the failures of our financial regulatory system and the functioning of our entire administrative and political system. Given the depth of the crisis, the universities have sought to play their part in response. This has been reflected in the universities agreeing to cut staff numbers by over six percent while continuing to respond to the demand for additional student places.

In summary, the universities are committed to the principle of self determination and to enhancing this over time.

Content of the PSA Plan

In line with the overall strategic position outlined above, it must be stressed that the theme underlying the plan is accountability and not control. As regards the proposed contractual revisions these have been driven by a desire to identify good practice across the universities and to consolidate this on a sectoral basis. In terms of the specific provisions, it is worth highlighting the major ones and elaborating on their intent and the thinking underlying them, as follows:

Attendance/hours of work

Attendance: this is stated as a requirement to be in attendance at the university during the normal working week and for the duration of the college year which is 12 consecutive calendar months.

It will be apparent that there has been considerable questioning of academic hours of work in recent times. At the Public Accounts Committee the University Presidents and IUA strongly defended the record of University staff and firmly rejected simplistic definitions of academic hours based on contact time. In our inputs to the HE Strategy process, and at the PAC, we rejected efforts to impose a requirement for fixed hours within the academic contract. We believe this would inhibit flexibility and ultimately compromise the widespread excellent commitment which staff have demonstrated.

However, we believe it is reasonable to set down minimum standards in respect of attendance as outlined above. Some have suggested that this is to have the effect of physically shackling academics to the university and banning remote working etc. We want to stress that this is categorically not the case. Our concern is fundamentally about accountability for work and, in practice, this provision is simply to consolidate a framework which protects against cases of obvious abuse of the freedoms which currently exist and which we support. Thankfully, those abuses are extremely rare, but it cannot be denied that they have occurred.


Here, we are seeking to establish that tenure is consistent with the established corpus of employment law and, in that context, refers to the duration of contract.

It has been suggested that the above represents a concerted attempt to casualise university employment. Again, this is emphatically not the case.

However, the concept of tenure dates from a time when employment law was much less well developed. We now have a national legal framework incorporating, inter alia, the Unfair Dismissals and Fixed Term Workers Acts which provide considerable protections to employees generally. We strongly support employment security for staff.

In some of the commentary, the concepts of tenure and academic freedom have been conflated, with the implication that any contextualization of tenure will be used to attack academic freedom by facilitating the dismissal of staff who express unpopular ideas.

This is a completely wrong characterisation as will be reflected in the section on academic freedom, where we vigorously uphold and support freedom of thought and enquiry.

We do not believe that it is helpful to have an amorphous concept of tenure which somehow subsists in a parallel realm to that corpus of law. Such subsistence at best creates ambiguity, and at worst, creates the impression that tenure will be advanced to create an absolute prohibition on dismissal or sanction, even in the worst and thankfully extremely rare cases of misconduct. The fostering of such an impression is enormously damaging to the public reputation of the universities, to our desire for continued and enhanced self determination, and it does no service to the vast majority of staff within the university.

Academic Freedom

The capacity of universities to develop new knowledge and to share that knowledge within the collective community of learners and with the wider society is essential: in the literal sense, it is the essence of what defines a university. We have consistently defended this.

We have firmly and repeatedly rejected the notion of universities as mechanistic institutions which exist to supply static units of learning to a cohort of passive consumers. Most recently we gave an extensive presentation to the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Education and Skills showcasing the range of innovation and high quality demonstrated by our universities and emphasizing the contribution of our academics as independent thinkers and contributors to national and international debate.

We are unambiguously committed to academic freedom of thought and enquiry.

We are equally committed to our academics’ freedom to continuously vary what is taught as the universe of knowledge expands. We believe that the continual testing of what is held to be true is essential for all in the community of learners.

There can and should be no doubt of this and we will defend this position.

What we must do as a foundation for that defence, is to distinguish between freedom and licence.

This is what we are seeking to do in the proposed contractual provision which states that it is to be acknowledged that the freedoms which are contained in Section 14 of the Universities Act are to be exercised in the context of the framework of rights and obligations contained in the contract.

As articulated in this paper, the obligations element is simply a framework that contains accountability requirements which reflect the excellent practice of the vast majority of academic staff and which also safeguard against those cases of abuse which, though extremely rare, have the capacity to undermine public confidence in the universities.

Public Confidence

It is worth considering further the importance of public confidence. Universities have an essential role within society in the creation of new knowledge and in challenging conventional wisdom and accepted truths. However, if this role is to be effective, universities must have public trust and confidence.

Trust and confidence are qualities which are earned; universities have no intrinsic right to them. Intellectual freedom which exists in the absence of such trust and confidence would be a debased currency of little or no value. It would reduce universities to voices crying in the wilderness, dependent on society for their subsistence but powerless to influence it.


In summary, the PSA plans are designed to reinforce all that is good in our university system and provide for the further enhancement of our self determination.

They allow Universities to maximise their traditional and properly-valued contribution to society, as well as making a real contribution to national recovery.

Their implementation will enhance our reputation and strengthen public trust and confidence in our institutions.

In consequence they will strengthen our voice and our position in society to the benefit of, students, society and staff alike.



Academic freedom and tenure: some further thoughts (Donncha Kavanagh)

February 1, 2011

Two weeks ago a number of Irish academics signed a letter published in the Irish Times in which they voiced concerns about the future of academic freedom. One of the signatories, Dr Donncha Kavanagh, Senior Lecturer in Marketing in University College Cork, here explains his own thoughts in relation to this issue.

I signed the petition because I support the idea of academic freedom, not least because I’m wary that hostility to academic freedom might be masking a deeper and dangerous philistinism.  We may be quite a bit away from the Nazi book-burnings and sacking of academics, but that episode reminds us of the need to put boundaries on the extent of state control.  Indeed, one part of our current problems is a systemic failure of governance (and a general lack of understanding of the distinction between management and governance) which often rests on a separation of powers.  For instance, the short-termism of the politician should be balanced by the long-termism of the civil servant and the academic, a distinction that projects such as the Strategic Management Initiative may have blurred. The state then, as argued by Kant in 1798, has a duty to protect academic freedom in order to enhance if not ensure the rule of reason in public life, while the university has a commensurate duty to counter the excesses of the state and its desires. Sadly, my sense is that the university has not always met the latter duty, though this is perhaps linked to the current fetish for the physical sciences and the lack of regard for the social sciences.

But neither should one be in thrall to academic freedom, or use it to simply buttress selfish desires for permanent employment and security.  In this regard, I think academic freedom should not always be bundled together with the concept of ‘permanency’ (which varies in meaning depending on context).   A ‘permanent’ job in Dell computers means that it is ‘permanent’ until such time as the market dictates that the job is no more.  In contrast, a permanent job in the civil service (which includes but is not exclusive to those that have academic freedom) means something quite different because the risks of losing that job are much smaller (though not nil).  These differences can and should be reflected in relative salary levels (which, of course, are also determined by other issues such as the desire to attract the best applicants).

If academic freedom is a meaningful privilege that comes with real responsibilities, it must have an elitist dimension, which means that there needs to be a robust process to determine who is accorded this freedom (qua responsibility). In that context, the well-meaning endeavours of the unions to stop the abuse of temporary workers (through practices such as the rolling over of temporary contracts) in the industrial sector has had an unintended consequence on the concept.   There should, in my view, be a long probation period ­ at least 5 years, though it might also be linked to performance criteria – before an academic is accorded ‘tenure’, during which time he or she must have clearly demonstrated the necessary qualities in terms of teaching, research and administration, as well as a good capacity for independent and critical thinking.  Thus, ‘tenure’ should mean something quite different from a permanent job in Dell or a permanent job in the university.  And I would see nothing wrong with having separate cohorts of teaching staff in a university, some with and some without tenure, and some on contracts that are rolled over (but not of indefinite duration).   This might require changes to employment legislation, but if so, then so be it.

In defence of academic freedom

January 24, 2011

This is the opening speech by Paddy Healy (former President of the Teachers Union of Ireland) delivered to the meeting of Irish academics on January 22 in the Gresham Hotel in Dublin.

Academic freedom is a necessity in a healthy democracy. Citizens have a need for a diversity of expert opinions to enable them to take informed decisions and to direct their political representatives. The warnings of a possible banking collapse came from outside the banking industry and indeed from outside the regulatory and political system. The warnings of Professor Morgan Kelly and others went unheeded.

Analysis and criticism of social, economic, scientific and artistic policies by academics is the right of citizens. If academic freedom is restricted this flow of information and analysis is likely to be reduced or stopped.

Citizens have a right to objective information on the content of food products, the safety of structures and other engineering systems, on pollution of the environment, on aesthetic matters and on health issues. Academics must retain the unrestricted right to give this information.

Academic freedom and tenure is not just a ruse invented by academics to protect their employment as some letter writers have suggested.

The purpose of ‘tenure’ as protecting a university professor or lecturer against dismissal, as set out in the UNESCO Recommendation concerning the Status of Higher Education Teaching Personnel of 11 November 1997, is to provide protection for the independence of university academics in their teaching and research by ensuring that they cannot be dismissed for the expression of unpopular or novel ideas. Savage (Academic Tenure and its Functional Equivalent in post-secondary Education, ILO Working Paper June 2004) suggests that ‘tenure’ might also ensure that those among the academic staff teaching ‘highly technical but not popular subjects’ are also protected ‘so that such learning is not easily removed from the university milieu because of ephemeral undergraduate student demand’. As Savage goes on to point out: ‘dismissal procedures are the key’. Tenure exists in reality if academic staff can only be dismissed for ‘just cause’, such as professional incompetence, financial corruption, sexual or racial harassment or the abandonment of position, proved before a ‘fair and independent body’. One of the more ‘vexing’ questions in his opinion is the effect of ‘financial exigency and programme planning’ and whether these factors can override the guarantees of ‘tenure’.

At a large meeting of academics held in UCD on Thursday last, the representative of the Irish Federation of University Teachers informed us that as a matter of policy IFUT would be making no concessions on the issues of academic freedom and tenure. The President of the SIPTU Education Branch gave similar assurances.

My colleagues and I are encouraged by the declaration of the Board of Trinity College in favour of academic freedom and tenure. We must of course be careful of the meaning of those terms. We are also encouraged by the declared opposition to research by command from above. It would be most appropriate if the governing authorities of other third level institutions made similar declarations.

I would like to congratulate Dr Hugh Gibbons, IFUT President, and his colleagues in IFUT at TCD for their hard work and persistence in securing this declaration.

Academic staff in institutes of technology were believed to have effective tenure through the permanency of public servants until the emergence of the Croke Park Deal. Academic freedom is written into existing contracts. I call on the governing bodies of these institutions to unconditionally withdraw all threats of redundancy to academic staff.

It is important that third level institutions continue to produce graduates who combine a high level of professional expertise with a capacity for critical thought. That is necessary for a healthy democratic society and a successful economy.

The funding model of third level institutions penalises failure of students to progress by passing examinations. This has led to very unhealthy pressures in the direction of lowering criteria for progression. There have been incidences of administrative passing of students. Academics must retain the unfettered right subject to reasonable criteria to say that a student has not reached the required standard. Academic freedom based on permanence of employment is necessary in order that academics can resist unhealthy pressures. If ‘dumbing down’ becomes rampant, serious damage will be done to our society. The qualifications of existing graduates would be devalued. Authorities in many areas such as health, social services and education would be denied a reliable criterion in employing professional staff. Companies seeking to employ graduates would have similar problems. The reputation of Irish qualifications abroad would be destroyed.

Let us repeat here the concern expressed by Savage (above) lest highly specialised but not popular subjects be removed from third level institutions. I would add a concern that creative arts and sociological enquiry would be increasingly de-prioritised through funding mechanisms. I also echo the concern of Tom Garvin that open-ended or “blue sky research” would be deprived of funds in favour of focussed problem solving for commercial purposes. I am reliably informed that the next round of cuts under the HEA Employment Control Framework will necessitate redundancies in addition to non-replacement of staff in some institutions.  Areas of knowledge, inquiry and cultural endeavour must not be selectively deprived of resources. Nor should resources be squandered on a large management layer arising from the inappropriate replacement of collegiality with a command model of management to the detriment of teaching and other academic activity.

There are also serious concerns in the areas of science, engineering, computing, medicine and other health sciences.  There must be no drift towards allocation of academics to research projects outside their own research interest. Genuine research simply cannot be done on such a basis. Institute of Technology staff must not be prevented from engaging in scholarly activity by timetabling for 19 to 21 teaching  hours  per week.

We have no objection to having industrial research partners. But the co-operation must be on terms which do not affect the independence of academic staff. There must be no question of suppressing unwelcome research outcomes or impeding the development of knowledge as has happened in a number of cases abroad.

Academic freedom based on tenure and permanency is an indispensable prerequisite for a healthy democratic society, for the maintenance of academic standards and for the continued flourishing of genuine scholarship in Irish academic institutions.

The future of academic tenure

September 6, 2010

It is generally reckoned that the concept of academic tenure was developed to its most pure state in America. Under United States custom and practice, once an academic employee in a university has been awarded tenure, they cannot be dismissed from their university employment except on certain grounds related to conduct or performance. The concept is closely tied to academic freedom, and this means that the expression of opinions or views or the pursuit of research as determined by the academic in question cannot be a good ground for dismissal.

Although tenure has, as noted above, been a particularly important ingredient in American higher education practice, it is in the United States that it has most recently come under the heaviest fire. A number of books and comments in influential newspapers have called into question the value of academic tenure, and have raised the question as to whether it actually inhibits innovation and facilitates or promotes unfair working practices and exploitation.

Last week the New York Times ran a book review in which some of these issues were raised. The author, Christopher Shea, summarised the view of academic tenure from outside the academy as follows:

‘At a time when nearly one in 10 American workers is unemployed, here’s a crew (the complaint goes) who are guaranteed jobs for life, teach only a few hours a week, routinely get entire years off, dump grading duties onto graduate students and produce “research” on subjects like “Rednecks, Queers and Country Music” or “The Whatness of Books.” Or maybe they stop doing research altogether (who’s going to stop them?), dropping their workweek to a manageable dozen hours or so, all while making $100,000 or more a year. Ready to grab that pitchfork yet?’

There are resonances here with public comments that have been made in Ireland: that academics (or tenured academics) are a privileged group, over-paid and outside any reasonable system of performance review, who neglect their real work in the sense that their teaching duties are excessively modest, and who work according to restrictive practices that have long been abolished everywhere else. The notion that they constitute an elite or privileged group is reinforced by complaints that non-tenured academics, such as probationers, fixed terms lecturers and part-timers, are exploited and under-paid, while often performing the key teaching functions that tenured academics neglect.

It seems to me that academic tenure remains, and must remain, an important element of higher education. Without it, it would be hard to secure the freedom of intellectual thought and the development of new knowledge. But it has got a bad name outside the academy, and this needs to be recognised and addressed. As the proportion of those who have tenure declines and as universities rely more and more on casual and short-term staff (a development that has been accelerated by the ’employment control framework’ in Ireland), tenure may begin to look like an enclave for a small and ageing elite who claim special privileges, including the right to resist all change. Of course this is not how universities see it, but the wider public has not been persuaded that this is not a true picture. In the meantime, some of the growing hostility to higher education derives from this view.

Perhaps the key issue is that, to outsiders, academic tenure together with academic freedom look like an insistence on self-regulation, which is a concept that has now been dismissed fairly comprehensively for all other professional groups and bodies. If we are to succeed in retaining it for higher education, we need to be able to demonstrate that it will not be abused. And that is a case that, so far, we have not made very well. We need to get on with it.