Ten-year v tenure: do academics need MOTs?

December 16, 2005

Perhaps university posts shouldn't be for life, but they shouldn't be just for Christmas, either, says Douglas Kell

Every year, motor cars are put through MOT tests to assess their fitness for purpose. There are, I believe, strong arguments in favour of doing likewise with academics, though once a decade seems about the right length of time between our assessments.

The argument against absolute tenure is straightforward. As an active laboratory head I have some 75 postdocs. In a steady-state system in which no academic retires, there is only one job available for those postdocs - and that is mine.

Statistically, this means that I will block up the system for decades and prevent the bright young things who are (or will be) smarter than me from getting jobs. This is evidently grossly unfair if I am not producing top-class research.

Plenty of examples from research institutes and universities around the world attest to the problems that full tenure creates. Not only do the academic cuckoos fail to produce the necessary top-class research but they also prevent others from doing so - a double whammy.

At the other extreme is the suggestion that academics might be treated like postdocs funded by soft money on a series of fixed-term contracts. Every three years, their intellectual or economic value would be assessed, and if the needs of the employer had changed the academic would be released, with a redundancy payment as per European Union fixed-term directive rules. This too is unsatisfactory. Perhaps tenure should not be for life, but it should not be just for Christmas either.

Short-termism is bad for the subject. It is obvious that really substantial ideas take time to develop, and stop-start funding will force academic programmes into addressing short-term targets alone. While not everyone needs 20 years to gestate their big ideas, they will normally need more than three.

Short-termism is also bad for the academic. We wish to attract the brightest and best into academic jobs, both for the research they produce and for the education they provide to others. While academic salaries remain uncompetitively low, a degree of security can serve to offset this.

Finally, short-termism is bad for the university. Institutions need some stability for succession planning, both intellectual and managerial, and this is impossible in a climate of uncertainty and fear.

So, as with many things, the optimum lies at the apex of a bell-shaped function. The biologist J.B.S. Haldane pointed this out in his famous essay "On being the right size". I would argue that ten years is about the right size. At least in the sciences, my guess is that on average the first permanent appointment is made when the candidate is about 33 years old - that is, after a PhD at 25 followed by one or two postdoc/fellowship positions.

Giving academics ten years is long enough to tackle quite big problems and to take some risks that (if they come off) will produce really high-class and groundbreaking work, though this does require sufficient funding, of course. Even if an individual produces just two or three reasonable papers a year, that would still create a significant portfolio, so the bar is not excessively high. And if it goes wrong, given a year's notice, 42 is not too late to make a welcome career change.

By the second, and in effect the last significant, decennial review, the academic should be well established after 20 years, and be able to display a corpus of solid achievement. The third review, in one's sixties, provides an opportunity to position and plan the final stages of a career.

Functionally, this does not differ so much from the status quo ante, although a poor score in the research assessment exercise has historically been reflected in low funding for the whole department, and thus indirectly impacted only on those individuals who could be and were retired early.

Similarly, the tenure-track system in the US seeks to fund only the best, though (disingenuously) not by firing those who do not make the grade but by not hiring them in the first place.

I appreciate all the dangers of mismanagement, personalities and score-settling that this could involve, as well as issues such as career breaks. But quality metrics for sustained individual performance can be found and applied. And why stop with academics?

The case for decennial retesting of medical doctors and of the drivers of motor cars is also compelling. A performance test for university administrators, anyone?

Douglas Kell is professor of bioanalytical science at Manchester University and has recently passed his second academic decennium.

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