Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Tenure denied

Before the vultures start circling, the headline isn't specific to me. Rather, this post is about JAMSTEC's new employment system, which is being introduced from April. It's easy enough to summarise the new tenure system: there isn't any. There isn't any tenure, that is. There's plenty of system, about 70 pages of it in close-written Japanese, with no English translation yet (ever?). The motivation seems to go as follows: there is too much dead weight in the universities with tenured professors who do no work, and anyway science is supposed to be an insecure career (yes, really, this was said). So the solution is that we (within JAMSTEC) will all have contracts of up to 5 years in length, which can be renewed or not at the whim of our bosses.

In practice, it actually seems rather similar to the present system at FRCGC (which was set up as a new institute 10 years ago without too much thought as to how it was actually going to work), although that was de facto and ad hoc, and this is now being formalised and rolled out to all the other labs. In theory there is something roughly touted as "tenure track" which seems to be modelled on the NCAR system. In our version of this there are 4 grades starting from post-doc, the promotion from each is a one shot "up or out" decision and even after reaching the highest level, you still only get renewable contracts and no-one seems to have much of an idea how these will be reviewed (of course as it's a new system, no-one seems to know how any of the decisions will be made - at least, they have not been able to tell us yet). In parallel, there will be some staff who just have fixed 5 year (or less) non-renewable contracts, but (AIUI) people in these positions can apply for a "new job" at the end of their term anyway (which in fact jules and I both did a couple of months ago, as we had reached the end of our initial 5 years), and as a result it doesn't seem that the process for promotion and renewal on the "tenure track" will be materially different from that of applying for a "new job" on the "contract staff" track. It is yet to be decided who will be assigned to each track, and why.

I have tried to tell the powers that be that if they want to turn JAMSTEC into NCAR, it will take a lot more than introducing (or at least ossifying) a shitty employment system. I don't expect anyone to listen, of course - if they had wanted the opinions of the staff, they would presumably have asked us at the outset rather than merely telling us after it had been decided - but the UK generally abandoned its experiment with widespread term-limited contracts some time ago. By the time we left our previous jobs, NERC had adopted a system of one term-limited contract to start with followed by an open-ended one at the first renewal, and I think now some posts may even be open-ended from the start. There is also a big new fellowship scheme for the universities whereby you get to transfer to an open-ended lectureship after ~5 years.

I wonder how long it will take for JAMSTEC to realise the mistake it is making. Actually, as has been mentioned in the comments previously, it is primarily a technology-based organisation with little background in science, so maybe this is a deliberate plan to keep us in our place.


Gatt said...

I wonder if you're aware of the recent shake-up with the UK system, because of realization that EU regs apply to the universities? Anyone on contract longer than 4 years must be offered a permanent position. Academically, this is good (limiting exploitation that can happen in the postdoc system) and bad (Uni much more cautious about employment at all). It's certainly a change.

James Annan said...

Yes, I remember something like that being behind NERC's changes. It seems like a fairly reasonable and humane system overall. If the scientific research industry can't provide stable careers for the trained PhDs then perhaps we should not produce so many of them!

Gatt said...

I couldn't agree more with the sentiment, but I don't see how the one bears on the other from the University's point of view. I haven't observed any conscience that connects revenue collection with HR.

The much bigger change in that respect is making the student responsible for part of the cost. Doesn't change the system itself, but results in at least the concept of cost/benefit analysis.

James Annan said...

Yes, I'm sure that the universities and the empire-builders want as many students as possible, but I was thinking from a more strategic Governmental level. After all, they are ultimately the ones who pay (most of) the bills. I think they are fully of the "we need more PhDs" mindset though.

Lab Lemming said...

Reason number 642 why it's better to be technical staff than academic- "continuing" contracts (the word "permanent" long since disappeared from the Australian HR office's vocabulary).

ileana said...

Hi Gatt,

Sorry if this is a bit off-topic but I am intrigued by your sentence:

" ... because of realization that EU regs apply to the universities? Anyone on contract longer than 4 years must be offered a permanent position."

My understanding was that this was merely a recommendation for good hiring practices, not something that could be enforced. If you know otherwise for sure I would really like to hear about it (I have a 5-year research fellowship contract from the Spanish government).

James Annan said...


I think it is EU directive 1999/70/CE, I easily googled a pdf at work but cannot find it now I'm home. Googling on those numbers will get plenty of references anyway.

It is certainly stronger than a mere recommendation, but exceptions are allowed when there are sufficiently objective reasons.

EliRabett said...

Rolling contracts are a much better idea than fixed term ones. Every year you have a review, if your work has been satisfactory your contract is extended so that it ends six years later, and so on. If the work is NOT satisfactory, you have to be told WHY it is not satisfactory, and you have a chance to remedy the situation. If you do, at the end of the next year, you have a new six year contract. If you mess up six years in a row you are gone.

If it is good enough for basketball coaches it is good enough for faculty

James Annan said...

Ah, here's the pdf. It's short on specifics and leaves some wiggle room, but the broad brush intention is clear.

A decent length rolling contract would also probably be ok in my book. Not sure it would be far different from tenure in practice.

Lumo said...

I completely agree with the wise Japanese people. Tenure in any job is wrong, counterproductive tool to lower the efficiency of anything and everything.

What it creates in most cases are people who owe everything to redistribution. So one not only reduces redistribution but creates all kinds of biases. It's wrong and it should be abandoned.

James Annan said...

There is certainly some merit in that in theory. It was one of the excuses used in the UK - contracts prevent us from getting lazy and complacent. However too much job insecurity also harms productivity (I've seen plenty of that in UK labs getting downsized). Moreover, the "wise Japanese" are only abolishing tenure for certain groups of people which merely degrades the working conditions in that one sector and chases out the good.

In practice the alternative to tenure may not be some meritocracy where the best are rewarded, but rather a culture of obsequious grovelling to your seniors and an unwillingness to challenge and improve on the status quo. It's not like JAMSTEC are bringing in a system to reward performance, but rather to enforce hierarcy and concentrate power at the top of the pyramid. Management has always seemed extraordinarily top-down here but this new system harks back to the worst excesses of the shogunate. There are absolutely no checks and balances in the legal system, the decisions to not renew can be made (and frequently is) irrespective of any possible performance-related assessment or economic need.

Lumo said...

I agree with your points, too. It is not the case that job insecurity automatically implies meaningful decisions. Favoritism may become stronger without that.

The permanent jobs have some advantages - like for the supreme judges - that the people can't be efficiently "blackmailed", if I use a strong word.

Still, 35 years of job stagnation could sometimes be too much of a good thing. Also, there is a lot of dynamics in the fields. Things that require a lot of people to work on it today are not necessarily the same fields as 10 years from now.

Lab Lemming said...

I used to agree with you. Then I saw a brilliant young researcher get his short term contract dropped after he refuted one of his boss's high profile papers. Now I'm not so sure that the cost of job stagnation is higher than the benefit of intellectual freedom.