Is there academic tenure in the UK?

If not, is job security nevertheless comparable to North American tenure?

Michael Otsuka
Aug 5 · 5 min read

People often ask whether academics in the UK have the sort of job security that North American academics with tenure enjoy. To answer this question, some historical background is necessary.

Prior to Margaret Thatcher’s Education Reform Act of 1988, British academics in permanent (i.e., non-fixed-term) posts could lose their job only for “good cause”, such as an inability or unwillingness to perform one’s duties, or gross misconduct. British academics could not be made redundant. In this respect, they enjoyed job security that exceeded that of tenured North American professors, who can be dismissed, not only for cause, but also on two narrowly-defined grounds of redundancy: either (i) financial emergency or (ii) because of the “formal discontinuance of a program or department of instruction”.

The main change brought about by Thatcher’s Education Reform Act was that it became possible to dismiss academics, not only for good cause, but also on grounds of redundancy. Moreover, the grounds for redundancy that a British university employer can invoke are more expansive than in the case of North American employers. In the UK, any employer’s decision to “cease” or “diminish” the “activity” in which the employed individual is engaged can count as permissible grounds for redundancy. In the UK, permissible grounds for redundancy for an academic are the same as the grounds for redundancy in employment law for workers more generally.

Since, unlike in North America, there are no special, narrower grounds for redundancy for UK academics, the term “academic tenure” is not used to characterise the job protection of UK academics. But the important question is this: Do UK academics nevertheless have job security that is on a par with that of North American academic tenure? The answer to this question mainly comes down to whether protection against being made redundant at the particular UK university in question is comparable to the protections that exist in North American universities.

According to the 1988 Education Reform Act, the university’s governing body must come to the decision that redundancies are desirable before academics in permanent post can be selected for redundancy. Management cannot come to such a decision unilaterally. Given the unique nature of Oxford’s and Cambridge’s governing bodies, protection against being made redundant at these two universities is exceptional. Oxford’s “Congregation is the sovereign body of the University and acts as its ‘parliament’. It has just over 5,000 members, including academic staff; heads and other members of governing bodies of colleges; and senior research, computing, library and administrative staff.” Cambridge’s “Regent House is the governing body and principal electoral constituency of the University. It has more than 3,800 members, including University Officers, and Heads and Fellows of Colleges.” In other words, at Oxford and Cambridge the vote of academics as a whole is necessary before any permanent academic can be made redundant. On account of this extraordinary and laudable affirmation of academic self-governance, job security at Oxford and Cambridge is at least as robust at that enjoyed by tenured academics at top-ranked North American research universities.

The composition of the governing bodies of other UK universities is in stark contrast to Oxford and Cambridge. The chart below indicates the current composition of the governing bodies of the top ten UK universities in a recent THES ranking, ordered in the red column by the proportion of the body that consists of academics who are not also senior managers. The higher up the list, the greater the democratic control that academics have over the governing of the university.

Governing Body Composition of top 10 THES-ranked UK universities

As the table indicates, my own employer LSE is in the middle of the list. Procedural protection against being made redundant is much less strong than at either Oxford or Cambridge.

An academic’s job security cannot, however, be inferred simply by the ranking of one’s university on such a table. King’s College London is roughly at the same position as the LSE. But the jobs of academics are, in significant formal respects, less secure at King’s than they are at the LSE. Here’s why.

In recent years, universities have been given license to amend their statutes or articles in order to remove the procedural safeguards against redundancy that the 1988 Education Reform Act put in place.

About ten years ago, King’s removed these procedural protections. They removed the requirement for governing body authorisation of redundancies and other procedural protections involving the composition and power of redundancy committees that were written into the 1988 Act. Rather, senior management were granted fairly unfettered power to make academics redundant there. A major crisis ensued: In 2010, their senior management exercised these powers by trying to select 22 permanent academics in the Humanities for involuntary redundancy, in order to free up resources to hire six new academics because a “need has been identified to invest in a number of areas of strategic investment and growth” such as “Culture and Identity” and “Digital and Visual Cultures”. In other words, fire 22 in order to hire 6 in conformity with the latest academic buzzwords. Among those targeted for involuntary redundancy was one of the world’s leading linguists, who was on the verge of being elected to the British Academy. It was jaw-dropping to academics in the humanities and linguistics around the world that a top research university in the UK would do what King’s tried to do, which sent the message that no matter how brilliant and accomplished an academic you are, even if you are about to be elected an FBA, your job is not secure. This fear was reinforced by the Dean’s announcement that every single academic in the Humanities, no matter how accomplished and dedicated, was under threat of redundancy, and would be required to reapply for their own jobs, spreading fear and anxiety across the entire faculty in order to dismiss only a small proportion of them.

On account of the worldwide backlash, King’s management did not follow through with their plans for mass redundancies in the Humanities, and academics were not forced to reapply for their own jobs. Rather, in an attempt to repair the damaged relations with their faculty, they managed to find pots of money to hire many more in the Humanities, in spite of their previous claims about the need for austerity and mass redundancies. King’s management did, however, push through compulsory redundancies in the Health Schools in 2014.

Even after people had witnessed the King’s debacle, UCL’s senior management tried to remove the 1988 procedural protections against redundancy from their own statutes. This was met with fierce and prolonged resistance from UCL’s local UCU union branch, working in close cooperation with their Academic Board. There were many at UCL who remembered that their Provost had been blocked three times, in the early 2000s, by these very procedures from trying to impose across-the-board redundancies along the lines of King’s. UCU and the Academic Board succeeded in preserving these procedural protections.

Protection against being made redundant is weaker in significant formal respects at King’s and other places that have ‘reformed’ their 1988 redundancy statutes, in comparison with universities such as UCL and the LSE, not to mention Oxford and Cambridge, where the 1988 statutes remain largely intact. Where they remain intact, senior management are often keen to remove them, and academics and the union which represents them must remain vigilant and prepared to strongly resist such efforts.

Michael Otsuka

Written by

Professor, Dept. of Philosophy, Logic & Scientific Method, LSE

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