The legacy of history is a powerful factor in the development of Australia’s university system. Originally incorporated in 1850 under the University of Sydney Act* “for the better advancement of religion and morality, and the promotion of useful [my emphasis] knowledge” (section I of the Act), the University of Sydney primarily functioned to educate the Colony’s future leaders in the professions Law, Medicine and Arts. In 1954 an Act of Parliament incorporated Sydney Grammar School as a pre-vocational feeder school for the University of Sydney.
What is so interesting about this history is the sheer persistence of this original culture; the feel of the University of Sydney as an extension of the private school system in New South Wales, aimed at supplying training for the merchant class, is palpable.
So it is perhaps no surprise that the University of Sydney has become the first Australian institution to try to effectively remove any semblance of tenure for its academic staff. The current Vice Chancellor––The Reverend Doctor Michael Spence, returning from Oxford to non-colonial Australia––has, in an outpouring of ‘tough love’**, sent notices to some 100 academics, informing them that their services will not be required after July this year. Allegedly, this was based on the application of a publication quota applied without reference to publication quality, and one applied retrospectively: an existing system of academic staff evaluation on which faculty had relied, was seemingly ignored in this process.**
Before I examine the likely economic effect on of this new sacking policy, should it be deemed legal, it is worth looking more closely at the history of academic tenure and why academic tenure is important.
When the University of Sydney was first incorporated its Academics could be hired and removed by a majority vote of the University Senate (sections VIII and IX of the Act). Service at the pleasure of a university board was also the rule at US institutions around the same time as the University of Sydney was formed. However, debate about tenure escalated over the ensuing decades. In the late 19th century when a ‘Ron Paulian’ view of money prevailed, President Benjamin Andrews of Brown University advocated ‘free coinage of silver’ in order to reverse debilitating effects of deflation on the US economy. This attracted the ire of members of Brown University’s board, many of whom were benefited from deflation due to their holding of money. They ordered President Andrews to cease his support for free coinage. A national debate raged.*** The view of monetary policy which Andrews espoused has been proven correct and is widely agreed upon today, with the notable exception of, I think, Ron Paul and perhaps some tea-party advocates.
In the late 19th century the case for tenure and academic freedom was made by supporters of Benjamin Andrews and their views prevailed. For the bulk of the twentieth century almost all US universities have maintained a strong notion of tenure. Importantly, this has included the expectation that all academics must also teach. As a result, the US has for the past century produced the best research output per-capita in the world: The US has the most Nobel Laureates, the most patents and the most and best graduate schools. There are four key principles underlying why academic tenure has been so successful in the US:
(1) Academic tenure promotes research quality: Tenure in the US is pretty damn hard to get. And getting it is the dream of all ambitious young academics. Such fierce competition leads to high quality output rather than high quantity, because the high quantity simply cannot filter people out: every ambitious young academic can produce volume, but fewer can produce truly excellent work. Teaching, particularly in an academic’s preferred area, and to bright students, is complementary to research and therefore improves it. Second, academic tenure, once given, allows an academic to take risks. Whereas it could be argued that the competition to get tenure might encourage conservatism a ‘following of the mainstream’, the same cannot be said of post-tenure incentives. Tenure is a system in which young academics are ‘trained up’ in the tenure process and then presented with a post-tenure environment that encourages originality and risk taking.
One concern is that academics with tenure will become idle afterwards. There are two countervailing factors. First, the tenure process is sufficiently rigorous that there is positive selection of people who enjoy research and will keep doing it throughout their career. Second, the tenure system which works best has academics teach as well as do research. These days in the US, the problem of persistently poor research performance by a tenured academic is met by an increase in teaching (and administrative) responsibilities, (a response which is not possible in a research-only environment). Further, a preannounced policy of easing up the teaching load allows for a dignified process of bowing out of research, as it removes the pressure to publish, and replaces it with another greatly valued activity.
(2) Academic tenure induces commitment and promotes investment by senior academics in the quality of the academic department: Being a long-term member, the academic has a stake in her department and will invest her personal resources in it. Academic tenure is a low-cost way of achieving such administrative, teaching and research investments. Senior academics will not see being fired as a risk should they hire talented juniors who might outperform them in the future. They are therefore more motivated to invest in quality human capital by hiring the best people for their department. Academics enjoy working with talented colleagues, but not at the expense of their own jobs!
(3) Academic tenure actually decreases salary costs: Conditional on a given level of ability, academic salaries are quite low. A university attracts talented people, not by paying high salaries, but by paying them in terms of job security and by allowing them to do things they love to do—teach and research. Contrary to what the man on the street might think, this actually reduces total salary costs. Aside from adverse effects on incentives to do deep research of ‘at will’ contracts, it would cost a fortune to maintain high quality academic staff if private-sector level salaries had to be paid. The first university to introduce real tenure in Australia is likely to be able to reduce its salary bill while retaining good academics. But it will have to be much more picky about who is hired: the tenure process needs to be more rigorous.
(4) Academic tenure promotes academic freedom: This encourages the free exploration of ideas (like Andrew’s opinion on free coinage) since retribution and removal as a punishment for such expression is not possible. With the benefit of hindsight, it turns out that Andrew’s position on deflation was the correct one: the suppression of his views was bad for the wider society.
With these points in mind, let us return to Sydney and its anti-tenure scheme, and ask whether this policy can achieve the University’s current stated goals:
We aim to create and sustain a university in which, for the benefit of both Australia and the wider world, the brightest researchers and the most promising students, whatever their social or cultural background, can thrive and realise their full potential.
We continually drive ourselves to find new ways to be accountable to the public good – to produce ideas and people that lead to smarter solutions and richer lives. ****
As there was no reference to the quality of research required to meet the quota, the first likely response of a Sydney academic is to meet the future risk of sacking with high volume and low quality output: book chapters, in-house journals and the like. Concurrently, an academic concerned about future sackings based on retrospective criteria will start to look around for a job elsewhere. Why would the brightest researchers want to take the risk of staying at Sydney? Given that jobs are easier to get for better performers, this will start to clear the best academics from the place. A longer-term response will be for senior academics only to hire juniors who will not outperform them. Why set up your own downfall? Or worse, seniors might only hire juniors who will work for them as glorified research assistants, writing their papers and keeping them safe from being laid off. Not a recipe to produce smarter solutions to our problems but an invitation for low quality toadyism. To hire an academic of a given quality will now cost Sydney more, as it will have to pay a risk-premium. Further, academic standards at Sydney will likely decline: Who will take a job without additional compensation, unless it is someone less well qualified? And is the public good served by academics who may well now be afraid of speaking out? Unlikely.
It is time for Australia to ditch continuing contracts and introduce a real academic tenure system like that of the USA. Make it very tough to get a job in the first place, and very tough to lose it. The effect of the Sydney scheme is the opposite of what is needed to promote excellence research and teaching in academia. Given the very real risk of a contagion effect of the sackings at the University of Sydney, it is time for a National debate on the issue of academic tenure.
* The University of Sydney Act, 1850.
** http://www.abc.net.au/pm/content/2012/s3436144.htm: Dr Michael Spence says staff should be pleased that the university’s being managed responsibly.
*** John E. Savage, http://www.cs.brown.edu/~jes/papers/tenure.html.