Fixed-term no freedom

July 21, 1995

It is not THES policy to carry anonymous articles. Academic life depends for its vitality on robust exchange of views, opinions, information and ideas without fear or favour and we expect people to be willing to put their names to what they have to say.

This week we have made an exception.

The author of the article on page 17 holds a temporary, part-time teaching contract. He/she fears that the opinions expressed would lead to that contract not being renewed. The article was made available to us only on condition the author's identity was not revealed. Since the issues raised, and the act of raising of them, go to the heart of academic freedom, we agreed.

Academic freedom was traditionally protected by giving academic staff tenure, a degree of security not granted to other staff in universities let alone to employees in other occupations. Academics were peculiarly protected so that they would and could speak out.

The 1988 Education Reform Act abolished tenure in its traditional form in British universities. Because this was rightly seen as a threat to academic freedom, a reluctant Government was forced by the House of Lords to accept into the legislation specific protection for academics' "freedom within the law to question and test received wisdom and to put forward new ideas and controversial or unpopular opinions without placing themselves in jeopardy of losing their jobs or privileges they may have at their institutions". The universities were required to set up elaborate appeals proceedures to ensure real protection.

But this does not help a part-time teacher on a fixed-term contract which can simply be allowed to lapse if the colleagues (or others) find the contract holder's views uncongenial. Hence our decision to publish the article anonymously. For not only does the author voice criticism which should be heard, he/she, in refusing to be named, also reveals the practical limitation to academic freedom in our universities. This limitation will increase as the numbers on fixed-term contracts increases. Since the people holding those contracts will often be young research-active staff who should be questioning and testing received wisdom, the threat to intellectual robustness in our universities is real, worrying and increasing.

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