Does a university need to offer secure employment to its academic workforce in order to safeguard free intellectual inquiry and to promote scholarship that is valuable both socially and economically?
Today that question is set against a backdrop in which new entrants to the academic workforce often encounter Hobson's choice: a zero-hours contract, or nothing. Yet, less than forty years ago, British policy makers had to grapple with a very different problem: whether, and if so how, to dismantle a system of academic tenure by which most research academics were guaranteed, by law, continuous employment until retirement age, and were immune from redundancy. Before 1979, this arrangement was felt by both academics and civil service officials to be an essential underpinning for research that could operate free of both government interference and managerial pressure. Upon taking office in 1979, leading Conservative politicians were deeply hostile to what they viewed to these unjustified academic privileges. By 1986, they had successfully dismantled academic tenure and were in the process of imposing upon most - but not all - universities a more corporate style of governance that mirrored the private company.
Did the shift to conditional employment terms the Conservatives implemented presage a surge in research productivity? If so, did greater research output lead to a dilution of quality? How did their imposition of private sector governance norms change the long term performance of the university?