Leader: Instability narrows horizons

Institutions need secure positions and income to plan and do good work; the same is true of individual scholars

March 22, 2012

Ninety-seven years ago, the American Association of University Professors published a declaration on the principles of academic freedom and tenure. One of its aims was to ensure that the profession was not fuelled by "the magnitude of the economic rewards" (don't faint), but that "men of high gift and character should be drawn into it by the assurance of an honorable and secure position". It is hard to argue with such noble aspirations, but it is also clear that the ideal of job security for all has fallen by the wayside.

In this week's Times Higher Education, David Mould, emeritus professor at Ohio University, writes that the proportion of US faculty in full-time tenured positions fell from more than a third in 1975 to about a fifth in 2009.

This decline has been matched by an increase in the number of staff on fixed-term contracts, or adjunct faculty. Critics argue that such staff often have no loyalty to their institutions - and little to their students. Their opponents say that having a more flexible workforce allows institutions to adapt, adjusting size and focus according to demand.

Some of these issues are considered in a study of professorial pay and conditions led by Philip Altbach, director of the Center for International Higher Education at Boston College. Despite the changing nature of the academic workforce, it finds that the profession is still perceived as a stable one.

The importance of this should not be disregarded, particularly in light of pay levels.

According to Altbach's study, average salaries at public universities, once adjusted for local living costs, are highest in Canada, with the US fifth and the UK seventh.

It also highlights some fascinating variations in local perks: who knew that a professor in India could secure a bonus by having a vasectomy? But regional differences aside, Altbach warns that in general, salaries are now at a level at which the "best and brightest" look for alternative careers.

In line with the AAUP's 1915 declaration, universities are in the fortunate position of employing staff for whom money is not usually the primary consideration. Take, for example, the push by the Gulf states to develop world-leading higher education sectors - the ultimate test of the power of naked spending. Although they attract some top institutions, they struggle to do the same with staff.

But even if academic pay has always lagged behind that of other professions, further diminution, coupled with the rise of the short-term contract, starts to look like exploitation.

Of course, these worries are nothing new. Writing in these pages in 1997, Stephen Court, then a researcher at the Association of University Teachers, warned that "short-term contracts, hourly paid teaching and more job insecurity are a greater threat to the quality of higher education than the loss of a cast-iron job for life". Fifteen years later, the University and College Union, the AUT's successor, spends much of its time arguing the same point.

But although it is an old argument, it remains an important one. Vice-chancellors have complained bitterly about the instability caused by the higher education reforms, which has made planning for the future so difficult. But what's good for the goose is good for the gander: academics must also be afforded a reasonable degree of stability in their professional lives.

john.gill@tsleducation.com.

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