Saturday, July 26, 2008

Academic Tenure Under Threat in Ireland

Higher Education in Ireland is provided by universities, institutes of technology and colleges of education. There are seven universities in Ireland. The institutions of higher education are publicly funded institutions with some institutional autonomy and receive about 90% of their income from state funds. Although they are autonomous institutions, the universities' duties and responsibilities are laid down by the Universities Act 1997. They are also monitored by a statutory body, the Higher Education Authority (HEA), which allocates the funding coming from the state.

About 80% of the academic staff in Ireland hold permanent tenured positions. All full time academic staff are officers of the state and tenured in the sense that they can not be fired without a serious cause, such as incompetence or outrageous conduct. In this sense, job security can be considered high (for instance, compared to the UK where only about 55% hold permanent contracts and there is no tenure). The academic staff who are not protected by tenure are primarily those who are in fixed term or temporary employment. In recent years, there has been an increase in the numbers of academics who are employed on non permanent conditions.

The first appointment to an academic position at an Irish university usually is at the level of lecturer. Lecturers need a PhD degree and preferably publications of high quality. Permanent positions of lecturer start with a probationary period of 12 months. At the end of this period, the promotion committee (invariably made up of senior officers of the university together with four elected academic staff representatives) decides on whether to award tenure or extend the probation period. A positive evaluation requires satisfactory performance of lecturing and other duties, evidence of interest in the pursuit of research and scholarship, and contribution and interest in the departmental development. Upon completion of satisfactory probation, the lecturer is granted tenure

Nowadays lectureships are often temporary - one, three or five years. Many new temporary jobs of one year have emerged because of government funding of temporary positions through the Programme for Research in Third Level Institutions (PRTLI), Science Foundation Ireland (SFI) and the Irish Research Council for the Humanities and Social Sciences (IRCHSS): they award funding which includes money to pay for replacement lecturers.

In February 2007, the HIGH COURT in Dublin, Ireland adjudicated on a case involving the interpretation of academic tenure and in particular, Article 5.1. of a controversial Statute of one of its seven Universities, Dublin City University (DCU). The DCU Statute 3 declared

“The tenure of officers of the university shall be such tenure as is conferred on each such officer in his or her individual contract with the university”.

As all DCU contracts of employment are legally constructed to allow the University to unilaterally terminate any contract by the giving of three months notice without cause or reason, the outgoing President of the University, Ferdinand Von Prondzynski, (an academic and employment lawyer by training) believed he could overcome the legal requirements of Universities Act, 1997 Section 25 (6) to "provide for academic tenure" by crafting this wording to stand up to legal scrutiny.

In the case, the Court addressed the question of the meaning of the word “tenure” as used in s. 25(6) of the University Act, 1997. The judge declared that the term as used must go further than a mere specification of the terms of employment. As pointed out a university already has (under subs. (3)) an entitlement to fix the terms and conditions of all employees (including officers). If the obligation to provide for tenure merely meant, as argued by DCU, an obligation to provide for the terms and conditions of employment so far as the length of that employment was concerned, then it would be a redundant obligation as that obligation is already covered by subs. (3). He concluded that the Oireachtas (Irish Parliament) must have used the term “tenure” to mean something more than simply delineating terms and conditions as to the length of employment.

He was also satisfied that the term “tenure” brings with it an obligation to give a greater degree of permanency to the status of officers of a university, than would be the case in circumstances where, as a matter of contract, such officers could have their contract terminated on three months notice. He was also satisfied that the purported specification of tenure by a University Statute by reference to contracts of employment which, on the facts, provide for termination on three months notice, was an invalid exercise of the undoubted entitlement of the university to specify tenure.

The President of DCU appealed the judgement and the Case is now heading to the Supreme Court in Ireland for a further definitive ruling. The outcome of the Supreme Court hearing will have major implications for academic staff and academic tenure in all Irish universities but a hearing and judgment will take some time.

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