Lack of trust is the biggest threat to our academic freedom


LEFTFIELD: If we are serious about exploiting the smart economy, we need to build up understanding between our academics and the public

ON JANUARY 22ND a meeting of academics took place in central Dublin to discuss perceived threats to academic freedom. It had been announced in a letter to the editor of this newspaper signed by 160 members of staff from the university and institute of technology sectors. In this letter the signatories suggested that there is a “serious threat to academic freedom and democracy” brought about by the Croke Park agreement, and by its implementation by universities trying to establish “managerialist structures and business models”.

The meeting duly took place, and the significant number of those present heard “why academic freedom and permanency to retirement age were necessary to maintain freedom of speech and information to the public, educational standards and fruitful scholarship, including research”. The convenor of the meeting, retired DIT lecturer and former TUI President Paddy Healy, argued that academic freedom provided citizens with reliable information that is not distorted by way of commercial or political pressure, and also ensured that standards and quality were maintained in third-level institutions. Those attending the meeting decided that all third-level governing bodies should be petitioned to adopt declarations in favour of academic freedom and permanency of academic tenure, and that political parties would be asked to pledge their support in advance of the general election.

Although people often seem to doubt this, in fact academics work exceptionally hard; most of them have a working week of more than 50 hours, and many work longer than that. People read about lecturers’ “contact hours” and conclude that that’s it; but lecturers need to prepare; they need to update their scholarship; they need to correct assignments (and there can be several bunches of these in a week); they may have to deal with outside bodies and organisations in relation to teaching programmes; they need to provide individual support and pastoral care for students in difficulties; they need to attend university meetings and provide administrative support; they may be asked to provide support to external bodies in matters of which they have expert knowledge. And all of that before you even start talking about research.

So, many lecturers go home late at night and feel exhausted, but then hear people who should know better (including politicians trying to score cheap points) argue that they under-perform and are lazy. Then someone tells them that their terms of employment will be “reformed” in order to address this under-performance; and before you know it they are writing a letter to The Irish Times and are meeting in the Gresham Hotel. Or else they become demotivated and lose their enthusiasm for the job.

This situation is not unique to Ireland. Last week a US journal published a report that contained the following quote from a senior professor in California: “Across the country, public education is under siege. At a time when the global economy depends on brains and not brawn, public support for education is at an all-time low.”

So how have we got to this point? In Ireland the immediate cause was the Croke Park agreement on public service pay and reform concluded last year. Four clauses in that agreement address higher education, and in particular suggest that working conditions for academics need to be reviewed and new contracts introduced. This has been seen by some – including the group that met in the Gresham Hotel – as the start of an erosion of intellectual freedom and individual autonomy and the introduction of corporate-style management and controls. Initial draft negotiation plans by some universities have reinforced those suspicions.

The Irish Universities Association, however, has emphasised that this is not what is being planned. Chief executive Ned Costello told me: “The review of the contract is concerned with ensuring that the normal obligations of a staff member in relation to issues such as attendance, annual leave and performance management and development are observed. It is not about constraining freedom of inquiry, which is a foundation stone of our university system. It is about consolidating the good practice which already exists in the sector.”

But this is not a minor matter. As a country we have nailed our colours to the “smart economy” mast, and must therefore ensure that we have a vibrant higher education sector that can create and enhance innovation and skills. On the other hand the public has become concerned about whether these institutions can actually deliver that, and whether we think these concerns are justified or not we must be in a position to respond rationally.

A new bond of trust needs to be re-established between our third level and the country, and this needs to work both ways. It means that our politicians and opinion-formers must stop the constant barrage of unsubstantiated criticisms of the sector (bearing in mind that individual anecdotes are not evidence of an overall problem). The sector itself must accept that we now live in an age where we all have to be seen to be accountable, and that reform is unavoidable, including some mechanism for identifying and dealing with under-performance where it occurs.

And all sides have to re-commit themselves to intellectual integrity and academic freedom, in the service of national regeneration.

Ferdinand von Prondzynski is a former president of DCU