IRELAND: Victory for academic freedom

An important victory for academic freedom has been struck by the Irish Federation of University Teachers which successfully brought a case against Trinity College Dublin to the Labour Court. It's believed to be one of the few cases in the world where an issue of academic freedom ended up in an industrial relations forum and its progress has been monitored by trade unions internationally.

Basically, the court ruled that disciplinary warnings against a faculty member at Trinity should be quashed and expunged from his employment record - he had been punished for not following orders regarding his research plans. It began in September 2007 when his professor issued new procedures to all academics in his area regarding reporting to him on their research, where and how their research should be published, and the seminars they would have to give to explain it.

This was seen as a fundamentally significant directive because, although all academics are obliged by their contracts to engage in research, there had not been any 'line management' type of control which would encroach on their freedom regarding their choice of research and where they published their findings.

The academic who became involved in the dispute reminded the professor that Trinity had already given a commitment to the federation not to allow individual professors to bring in new rules which changed the conditions under which academics worked. Trinity had agreed that such change could only be negotiated between the university as a whole and the federation.

He asked his professor to defer this proposal until its implications were dealt with by the university and the union. This request was denied and the academic was threatened with disciplinary action if he did not comply. Trinity refused several written requests by the federation to meet to discuss the issue and two stages of discipline were recorded against the academic who stuck to his principles.

The union asked the Labour Court to intervene. In its final recommendation, the court said the disciplinary measures should be quashed. It also upheld the request for the matter to be resolved by negotiating a new understanding around the issue of research and how it should be monitored. Union General Secretary Mike Jennings described the outcome as "a tremendously important development".

"While we were taking this case over the past year and more, we had received messages of support from academic unions internationally, but we did not publicise these as we always hoped that TCD, being such a reputable well-respected university, would not continue to try to punish one of their own staff for defending a principle. Regrettably, we were wrong in that assessment."

Trinity, however, sought to play down the significance of the ruling, saying it was currently considering the recommendation but broadly welcomed it. The university said it could not comment on the specific circumstances as the matter related to the case of an individual employee but it welcomed the union's acceptance of a "Performance Management and Development System" as a mechanism for the discussion of academic performance.

Both sides will now meet to discuss a draft document which encourages research and accountability but which does not limit research freedom.

Irish university managements routinely ignore labour court recommendations, which are by their very nature enforceable only with consent.

For example, the recommendation relating to Dublin City University, cited here, delivered in 2002, was never acted on, and the illegal disciplinary statute was repeatedly used - even after being thrown out by the Irish High Court. See

Sean O'Nuallain