Academic freedom tends to be discussed in the context of some specific threat or incident: the circumstances of a particular disciplinary case, perhaps, or a policy shift suggesting that the government aims to exert undue influence over universities and their staff.
As was recently argued in these pages by Martyn Hammersley, emeritus professor of educational and social research at the Open University, it is in essence about two things: the autonomy of academics within their institutions, and the independence of universities themselves.
In the US, where academic freedom is arguably held even more dear as a result of the almost sacred role of tenure track, discussion often focuses on similar threats and challenges.
Casualisation is happening, and it is having a direct influence on academic life and the power that scholars have to shape their professional lives
But in an article published last autumn, the president of the American Association of University Professors took a slightly different tack.
Rudy Fichtenbaum, who is professor of economics at Wright State University, Ohio, argued that the dangers that get the most airtime “pale in comparison to what have become the two greatest threats to academic freedom: the growing use of faculty who are hired on contingent contracts, and rising student debt”.
It’s his belief that the “corporatisation” of higher education has focused on splitting the US system into a tiny elite comprising the richest private universities and the top public institutions (which do the bulk of research and educate the majority of business leaders and politicians), and then a large band of public and private institutions, including community colleges, with a narrower, vocational focus.
What business wants from these lower tier institutions is “workers”, Fichtenbaum says, but not an “educated citizenry” who would challenge the status quo – and in particular inequality.
How has it pursued this end? Through the erosion of “academic freedom and economic security, turning the majority of faculty into at-will or temporary employees and saddling students with debt”, both of which “undermine the ability of faculty and students to resist”.
Whether or not you are persuaded that casualisation has been driven by an agenda as organised or calculated as Fichtenbaum suggests, there’s no doubt that it is happening, and that it is having a direct influence on academic life and the power that scholars have (or feel they have, which amounts to the same thing) to shape their professional lives.
Casualisation has been high on the agenda in US universities for a long time, but in recent years it has become a live issue in the UK, too.
According to a report published this week by the University and College Union, more than a third of the total academic workforce are on fixed-term contracts.
This will cover a range of employment scenarios, but in a UCU survey of 2,500 “casualised” staff in higher and further education, a third in universities said they had struggled to pay household bills, and one-fifth to buy food.
There is, of course, another impact too – on students. If one of the big items of unfinished business after the tuition-fee reforms is teaching, and whether students have seen the step change they were promised, then the question has to be asked: can casualisation possibly be in students’ favour? You don’t have to be a professor of economics or the head of a union to reach the same conclusion as Fichtenbaum on that one.