Memories of jobs for life

December 5, 1997

Stephen Court argues that the growing use of casual labour in universities since the 1988 Act is more of a threat to academic freedom than the loss of staff tenure

ON NOVEMBER 20 this year there was an anniversary that few academics were celebrating. I am not talking about republican dons with little time for the Queen and Prince Philip's 50th wedding anniversary, but the 10th anniversary of the effective end of jobs for life for university teachers in the United Kingdom.

Tucked away in the Conservatives' 1988 Education Reform Act under "Miscellaneous and General" was a section on academic tenure. The section started promisingly enough, with a commitment to academic freedom, saying that staff should "have 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" - a clause inserted against government resistance during the legislation's passage through the Lords.

But there was a jarring note in the next clause. In Thatcherite fashion, the clause emphasised the need for institutions "to provide education, promote learning and engage in research efficiently and economically". Those fine 1980s adverbs, efficiently and economically - as well as the defence of dons' freedom - lay at the heart of the matter.

This part of the act was designed to give university commissioners the power to change universities' charters and statutes to enable them to make academics redundant. Until the act, the widespread practice of giving academics a post until retirement meant they could only be dismissed for "good cause", such as serious misdemeanour or incapacity.

The act said that only academics appointed before November 20 1987 would be exempt from the threat of redundancy. But for staff appointed or promoted on or after that date, there was no tenure.

Harold Perkin, the chronicler of the first 50 years of the Association of University Teachers, wrote in the late 1960s that British academic staff traditionally enjoyed a security of tenure that was "second to none". That may have been so for professors and the fellows of Oxford and Cambridge. But many non-professorial academic staff in the earlier part of the century were on fixed-term contracts and had little security of employment.

Partly through the early efforts of the AUT, life for readers, senior lecturers and lecturers gradually became more secure. But the situation was far from watertight. The statutes of the University of Kent in 1965 were typical. They said: "Subject to the terms of his appointment no member of the academic or administrative staff of the university shall be removed from office save upon the grounds specified (ie good cause)." The key question was, what were the terms of appointment?

The words "subject to the terms of appointment" became known as the "Hull phrase" because of the case of Edgar Page, a lecturer at Hull University appointed in 1966. In 1988, Hull gave Mr Page notice of dismissal because of redundancy, saying that the terms of his appointment gave the university the option to "terminate employment for any lawful reason". Appeals against his dismissal failed, and so a lecturer appointed before November 20 1987 was made redundant.

In the past decade, universities, particularly those existing before 1992, have been reluctant to make staff compulsorily redundant. When redundancies are threatened, negotiation by unions representing staff normally results in early retirement and voluntary severance.

But what of academic freedom? Its inclusion was to ensure that redundancy was not a cover for ideological bullying.

But the gradual disappearance of tenure has not been the main threat to academic freedom. Sixty per cent of academic staff are still employed on permanent contracts: not as good as tenure, perhaps, but certainly better than being on a one, two or three-year contract, which is little more than being on permanent probation.

The rapid growth of short-term and part-time contracts and hourly pay for lecturers and researchers poses a much more potent danger to freedom. Casualisation is inevitably accompanied by growing job insecurity among staff when funding cuts are around. For the unscrupulous, it provides a potential leverage over the way staff teach and conduct research.

It is significant that for all academic staff in employment in 1995 and appointed before 1990, 86 per cent were on permanent contracts, 13 per cent were fixed-term and 1 per cent were hourly-paid or casual. But for staff appointed in the 1994/95 academic year, the data were as follows: 22 per cent permanent, 74 per cent fixed-term and 3 per cent hourly-paid or casual.

In 1994/95, for the first time, more academic staff engaged in teaching and research (as opposed to contract research staff engaged in research only) were appointed on fixed-term contracts than on permanent ones - 49.5 per cent to 48.3 per cent. For male academic staff appointed in 1994/95, 51 per cent were on permanent contracts; for female staff, 44 per cent were on permanent contracts.

Security of tenure will probably disappear once the generation of full-time staff in post with tenure prior to the Education Reform Act has retired. In this context, it is interesting to note that during the recent Unesco general conference debate on protecting academic tenure Britain and Australia were alone among member countries in refusing to support a declaration proclaiming that tenure was a major safeguard of academic freedom.

But if we are concerned about freedom, we should perhaps turn our attention from tenure to casualisation. 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.

Stephen Court is a researcher at the Association of University Teachers and writes in a personal capacity.

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