Contract Versus Tenure: Which Way to Go?

To me, the major benefits of a full-time academic appointment are financial and job security. Prior to my appointment as a lecturer in biomedical science at Central Queensland University (CQU) at Rockhampton in 1999, I was employed on a grant funded by the National Health and Medical Research Council (NH&MRC) at the Queensland Institute of Medical Research (QIMR) in Brisbane. My decision to leave full-time research and opt for academia was not based on a hidden desire to teach or disillusionment with research, but more on job and financial security. In the knowledge that approximately 20% to 25% of medically based research grant applications in Australia actually receive funding from NH&MRC, the basis of my decision to change positions was knowing that I would be able to provide for my young family for some time without having to be concerned about whether my grant would be funded or not, and if it was not, where would I have to move to secure a new position.

When I finished my PhD studies in biochemistry at James Cook University 11 years earlier, life in research or academia in Australia was unlike that which exists today. Academic positions are fewer and more difficult to come by, and research funding gets harder to secure. I have seen many of my colleagues opt out of research or academia because of the difficulty of obtaining a long-term secure position.

Before obtaining my position at QIMR, I undertook postdoctoral positions at the biochemistry department in Oxford, the department of medicine at the University of Queensland, and at the John Curtin School of Medical Research at the Australian National University in Canberra. As a result of this postdoctoral route, I was 10 years post-PhD before securing my position at CQU. During this period I applied for about 20 lecturing positions at different universities in Australia.

The postdoctoral route had many highs and lows, as we all experience in research. The joy of seeing your work in print is one that still excites, while the disappointments of not obtaining funding still rankles--especially on what you felt were well-written applications. No doubt these feelings will remain with me until I retire.

Another benefit of short-term appointments is that you learn about new cultures. You also get to experience life in a number of different places and to develop a large circle of friends. This is great when you attend conferences in these towns because you get the chance to renew old friendships. The disadvantages are that you do not feel secure and cannot plan for the long-term by, for example, buying a house.

When you settle down and have a family, your life situation changes. In an age in which unemployment is high, it is inappropriate to be changing towns and jobs on a regular basis, as this has major effects on your family. I have seen many relationships break-up over the fact that a short-term contract has not been renewed, which puts financial pressure on the family unit. I therefore made the decision while I was at QIMR that I would seek an academic position, which was not contract based, so I could have the job security that I wanted for my family?s well-being. Prior to obtaining my present position at CQU, Associate Professor Gillian Bushell at Griffith University encouraged me to deliver some lectures in her courses. Without this experience I do not think I would have secured my current position.

As much as I thought I knew academia from my days as a PhD student and through my sessional teaching at Griffith University, little did I know how much universities had changed between the late 1980s and today. In 1987 the Federal Government reintroduced tertiary fees for undergraduate students. Also, at the same time, all tertiary institutions in Australia went from being teaching institutions to universities. CQU is one example of these "new" universities, having started its days as the Capricornia Institute of Advanced Education in 1967 before obtaining university status in 1992. This change in the tertiary sector resulted in an increase in the number of university students but also meant that teaching institutions had to develop their research base in order to compete with the more established universities in the country for students.

At the same time, the Federal Government has reduced its level of funding to universities--from 80% in 1992 to 67% in 1999--forcing them to look elsewhere to make up this shortfall. The universities have overcome this shortfall by increasing their intake of full-fee-paying students--the majority of whom come from the Asia-Pacific region--by slowing down or freezing the replacement of staff, and by appointing sessional staff on short-term contracts. The net result is that the student-to-staff ratio has increased by nearly 50% in Australian Universities, from 12.9 to 1 in 1990 to 18.8 to 1 in 2000.

Even to this day the funding problems of universities in Australia still remain to be resolved. The unions have negotiated with the universities to ensure the best possible working environment and salaries for academic staff based on a number of agreed criteria. The tradeoff in some instances has been increased workloads, but until more funding enters the university sector this issue will not be fully resolved. The unions have rightly argued that universities can only employ a person on two short-term contracts, after which they must be employed on a continuing basis. Although this is not ideal for some, it at least ensures that a person can achieve some security of employment.

Universities argue that as employers they must have the ability to adapt rapidly to changes in student needs. In order to do so they must have flexibility to build up expertise in some areas at the expense of others based on student and community demands. More contracted staff would meet this need, but I do not think it would be beneficial to the university to have a huge turnover in staff. Any expertise gained by academics would be rapidly lost due to the continuous turnover of staff as areas expanded or contracted as a result of student needs.

So the view I had of academia in the late 1980s is not the one I am experiencing in 2002. I am fortunate that I have a continuing appointment, which means that unless student numbers rapidly decline in my teaching area I have a guaranteed job. However, if student numbers were to rapidly fall, my position might be terminated. The pressure is then on me to ensure that I keep evolving my areas of expertise and to develop research programs with other staff members. This is a challenge that I believe I have met, having been promoted from lecturer to senior lecturer after 2 years. If I were on contract, a promotion would have been unlikely and may not have done anything to improve my chances of reappointment.

Is it better to be on contract or tenure? As we do not live in an ideal world, this answer will vary depending on the stage your career is at, as well as your marital or family status. There is no correct answer to this question. If you are adventurous or like the flexibility of not being restricted to a position for too long, then contract is the way to go. In some cases, such as industry, it may even generate higher financial rewards than does academia. The major disadvantages are the lack of job security and difficulty of obtaining promotion or another position; it may also result in not being able to attract a loan from a bank.

If you want stability in your career or family life, then tenure is for you. It will enhance your ability to secure another position, as you are not under as much pressure to obtain that position. Besides, it will increase the amount of superannuation you will obtain when you retire. A negative aspect of tenure is that some people, once they achieve it, lose their productivity. This is detrimental to the organization that they work for. In many cases this is the main argument used against people who have been given tenured positions. Although it is true that some people lose the urge to continue their productivity, most people will perform better as they have the stability in their career that they crave. In my situation, I have never worked harder than I do at the moment. I am reaping the benefits of all this work and hope that this will continue for some time to come.

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