College presidents reject academic freedom claims

 

THE SEVEN university presidents have disputed claims by a group of prominent scholars that the Croke Park agreement threatens academic freedom.

In a highly unusual move yesterday, the presidents rejected the argument that the new contract arrangements in the agreement “represent an attack on academic freedom and tenure and thus the very essence of the university”.

“In our view this is emphatically not the case,” they said in statement from their representative body, the Irish Universities Association yesterday.

The presidents say they are “unambiguously committed to academic freedom of thought and inquiry”.

But they also warn that the notion of “unsackable” academics does no service to the sector and undermines essential public confidence in the quality of our higher education system.

The association’s statement comes as the grassroots campaign to defend cherished academic freedom among lecturing staff gathers momentum. Last month, 175 academics were signatories to a letter in The Irish Times claiming the Croke Park deal was a “serious threat to academic freedom and democracy” – and opened the way for colleges to establish “managerialist structures and business models”.

The presidents say the Croke Park deal is about accountability and not control. They say it is “reasonable” for the deal to set down minimum attendance hours for academics.

“Some have suggested that this is to have the effect of physically shackling academics to the university and banning remote working etc. We want to stress that this is categorically not the case. Our concern is fundamentally about accountability for work and, in practice, this provision is simply to consolidate a framework which protects against cases of obvious abuse of the freedoms which currently exist and which we support. Thankfully, those abuses are extremely rare, but it cannot be denied that they have occurred.”

The presidents also noted how the workload of academics is coming under increasing public scrutiny.

Last year, university presidents came under pressure from members of the Dáil public accounts committee after it heard how some academics in Irish universities worked a 15-hour week.

Róisín Shortall of Labour said this was of considerable concern to parents and was dispiriting for students who expected to be challenged at university, but were finding themselves with only six or eight hours of lectures a week.

In its statement yesterday, the university association says there is a widely held view that universities which have a strong capacity for self-determination are both more efficient and effective. “We are fully committed to maintaining this position, and, indeed enhancing it.”

The Croke Park deal does not set fixed contract working hours for academics but it requires them to be in attendance at the university during the normal working week and for the duration of the college year which is 12 consecutive calendar months.

The presidents say the concepts of tenure and academic freedom “have been conflated in some commentary on the Croke Park deal with the implication that any contextualisation of tenure will be used to attack academic freedom by facilitating the dismissal of staff who express unpopular ideas.

“This is a completely wrong characterisation as will be reflected in the section on academic freedom, where we vigorously uphold and support freedom of thought and inquiry.”