Argentine faculty unions: More power through collective agreements

In November, the Council of Presidents of Public Universities and the Federation of University Faculty Associations approved a collective bargaining agreement that defines a new structure for the teaching career at Argentine public universities. 

December 10, 2012


Editor's note: Countries everywhere need policies that will attract and retain the best scholars to the academic profession but also practices that will motivate faculty to strive to continuously to improve their performance. There is no perfect formula to achieve this nor can a single mandated national career structure address the diverse needs and objectives of all institutions. 

In November, the Council of Presidents of Public Universities and the Federation of University Faculty Associations approved a collective bargaining agreement that defines a new structure for the teaching career at Argentine public universities. This was accomplished through the creation of a “Faculty Statute,” a reflection of the renewed power of teachers unions since the reinstatement of the right of collective bargaining in 2004 (after a suspension of six years) and improved teacher’s salaries at national universities. After forming alliances with strategic government actors to define new pay scales, the teacher’s unions focused on the high instability of faculty positions due to the requirement that teaching staff reapply for their positions in open competition at regular intervals.

The teaching career as approved via collective bargaining introduced four key innovations to the academic profession at public universities. First, the new initiative assumes that all public universities will follow the same “faculty career regime” defined by the faculty unions. Second, the conditions to maintain a stable position (tenure-like status) will change. The hiring of faculty has traditionally followed an open competitive process. Academic openings are announced publicly and applicants are evaluated by the “competition jury.”  Nonetheless, obtaining a position through this procedure did not guarantee permanence because faculty were required to reapply for their post after a set period of time (usually seven years) in another open competition.  Hence, it was possible, although not very likely, that a faculty member could lose his or her position as a consequence of a subsequent competition.  According to the new collective agreement, positions obtained via an open competitive process will be permanent but subject to periodic evaluations of individual performance at each institution (about every four years).  

Third, if an opening needs to be filled within a short period, the post can now be filled by a faculty member whose position ranks directly below the vacancy. Until now this type of position could be filled with a temporary contract, generally with candidates proposed by chairs or academic departments (so-called “interim” posts). “Interim” faculty enjoy social security benefits and health insurance plans. This situation is temporary, pending the conclusion of the formal open competition, process that usually takes at least two years. The delay is a consequence of the financial, bureaucratic and political difficulties of conducting open competition.  

Finally, the promotion from assistant to junior teaching assistant will no longer occur via open competition but through an internal process within the university. 

One possible consequence of these measures is more rigidity in the faculty career. Although in principle it is quite reasonable, periodic evaluations of faculty are not easy to implement at Argentine public universities. At the most traditional larger universities, evaluating faculty at all levels every four years would be difficult because of the lack of reliable and valid indicators to measure performance, but it would also be complicated to assure that all of the information would be applied in a correct and transparent manner. Consider that our largest and most prestigious public university, the University of Buenos Aires, registers almost 30,000 academic posts. What will ultimately happen is what has already occurred at other universities that have attempted to apply this new professional protocol— de facto stability because the evaluation is reduced to a pro forma ritual or simply proves impossible to carry out.

Moreover, allowing promotion from assistant to junior teaching assistant through closed internal mechanisms could impede highly qualified Argentine PhDs who graduated from top international universities from competing locally. Take into account that the traditional career pattern in Argentine public universities has been from assistant to senior assistant and then to assistant professor, followed by advancement to full or associate professor. So, internal promotion at the gateway could create an obstacle for those trained abroad who seek a faculty career. As a result, these measures could ultimately further contribute to brain drain.

Public universities in Argentina differ in terms of the undergraduate and graduate courses they supply in size, seniority, and the importance of research activities. Consequently, the design of a common mechanism to hire and to promote faculty for the entire sector is impractical. Moreover, it affects the ability of national universities to manage their own human resources strategically. Until now, national universities could decide whether or not it was appropriate to introduce changes to the management of human resources. In fact, it is a privilege that few universities actively use. Most Argentine public universities lack an explicit faculty management policy that might align faculty hiring and development with the organizational goals of the university. For example, university authorities rarely apply hiring or promotion policies that will improve teaching or research quality. Nonetheless, a common policy for all national universities does not appear to be the best option to address the gap between the need for faculty stability and development and institutional objectives. 

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