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Thatcher’s Elimination of Tenure Leaves Professors in Outrage

July 11, 1988 GMT

LONDON (AP) _ Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s government hopes to put an end to the time-honored tradition of tenure in British universities and it has left many academics in outrage.

Tenure is the guarantee of lifetime employment for university professors who are accorded it, but it is to be eliminated this summer by the government’s controversial Education Reform Bill, now completing a stormy passage through Parliament.

Tenure dates back to medieval times, and it is a tradition that has carried over to American universities.

The Education Reform Bill has upset many professors who content that tenure protects them from being fired for airing unpopular ideas.

The government argues that British universities are failing to match international research standards and that by removing tenure, it can force unproductive academics to make way for younger scholars and infuse the universities with a new competitive spirit.

The new rules, to apply to all faculty appointed after Nov. 20, 1987, will empower special government commissioners to remove all tenure guarantees from university charters.

Mrs. Thatcher and the academics have been at loggerheads for years over her attempts to reform the funding of universities. In 1984 Oxford University took the unprecedented step of refusing to give her the honorary degree traditionally accorded to every prime minister as a protest of her funding cutbacks.

Both sides recognize that Britain is losing prominent scholars to American universities. But while the academics say cuts in government spending are to blame, the government argues that what it calls largely tenured deadwood is draining away money and clogging up the system.

The government’s education spokesman, Andrew Opie, said half of Britain’s universities offer tenure, making it impossible to impose layoffs. This, he added, ″makes it difficult for universities to meet changing patterns of teaching and research and to dismiss incompetent staff.″

Professor Elie Kedourie, head of the political science department at the London School of Economics, says abolishing tenure ″will make British universities into something very second rate.″

Although a Thatcher supporter, Kedourie fears that the elimination of tenure, plus other changes in the Education Bill regarding university funding, will enable the government to siphon money to profitable studies at the expense of liberal arts departments, whose untenured staff will then lose their jobs.

He finds it ″very ironic″ that a government deeply committed to free markets is being so interventionist on education.

″This notion of competitiveness has been very important when dealing with economics, but universities are educational establishments,″ he said in an interview.

The House of Lords, the unelected upper house of Parliament, has forced amendments into the bill guaranteeing academic freedom and prohibiting universities from replacing senior academics with younger, lower-paid professors solely for cost-cutting purposes.

But critics aren’t satisfied. They say the amendments can easily be overturned in the elected House of Commons and argue that the commitments are no substitute for centuries-old guarantees written into university charters.

The debate has even spread to the United States.

″Without tenure scholars and teachers are ultimately subject to outside control and thus are not free to seek and teach the truth as they understand it,″ Julius Getman, president of the American Association of University professors, wrote in a letter to The Times of London.

An American association spokesman, Robert Kreiser, said in a telephone interview that the British government can more easily force change on universities than the U.S. government could, because the British institutions are more dependent on government funding.

He said no U.S. government could abolish tenure in the United States.

″Every study that has ever been done has come to the conclusion that the alternatives to tenure are far less attractive,″ he said.

Unlike American academics who must wait up to 15 years for tenure, the average British academic gets it almost immediately after completing his Ph.D. dissertation.

But while top American salaries move into the six-digit range, British salaries start at 9,000 pounds ($15,300) a year and rise according to a national pay scale to a top level of 26,000 pounds ($44,200) for a senior department head.

Norman Stone, professor of Modern History at Oxford University, sees nothing wrong with government intervention in higher education, saying it has been going on for centuries.

″There was terrible trouble over this thing in the 16th century when Erasmus (the Dutch philosopher) wanted to start teaching Latin and Greek at Cambridge, and again in the 18th century when reformers wanted to switch Oxford and Cambridge out of theology and the like and into things like medicine,″ Stone said in an interview.