‘Employment control’ in the universities

In a recent post I pointed to the danger that higher education in Ireland would be bureaucratised as new methods of centralised control are imposed. Perhaps the most serious example of this is the so-called ‘Employment Control Framework’ that the government is seeking to apply to universities; a report on this is contained in today’s Irish Times. The ‘framework’ was communicated to the universities last week. In summary, this is intended to stop universities recruiting or promoting staff except in very exceptional circumstances; and even then they would only be allowed to appoint replacement staff in one of every three academic vacancies, and in no non-academic vacancies at all; and in any case any appointment would need to be authorised by the government, case by case.

Further discussions are likely to take place between the universities and the Higher Education Authority and the government, and it would be sensible not to make those discussions more difficult by speculating on how they might develop. However, the ‘framework’ represents a new departure in how the government sees universities: it is not just about adjusting the higher education budget or restraining university spending, it is a proposal to micro-manage internal university decision-making. This would be wrong in principle under the Universities Act 1997, and unworkable in practice.

Even if we accept that the government has urgent needs to cut public spending, it is quite another matter to remove from the universities the ability to manage their internal affairs and develop their own strategies as autonomous institutions. The implications of doing so go well beyond public sector employment controls: they would include an end to the idea of universities as engines of innovation, but in addition could also make difficult the expansion of student numbers in Ireland (and thus of higher education participation), and could even result in programme closures as necessary staff become unavailable.

I believe that all the universities at the current time are anxious to work with the government to ensure that they provide support, both in terms of restraining expenditure as much as possible and in terms of meeting government aims in activating employment and developing economic growth. But for this to be successful the government needs to see universities as partners, not as errant organisations that need to be controlled. I hope that this can be achieved.

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34 Comments on “‘Employment control’ in the universities”

  1. VincentH Says:

    The question for me is can I understand the position of the Government and their way of looking at so-called autonomous institutions.
    Now as far as I am aware the Judiciary are the only group in the pay of the exchequer where there is a Constitutional Bar between the Government and the Judges wallets. While Professors &co like to think they should have the same autonomy, they do not, did not in the constitution before this one and it is very unlikely they ever will have such Privileges. And no matter how you paint the wall, the reality is you are an annex of the Civil Service where the exchequer is concerned.
    Further, I believe that the Exchequer has the Universities by the short ones at the moment and they would be criminally stupid to let you off. For all that would happen is a variant of the bullcrap issued by the Medics and Chemists, where they can play two sources of income off against each other.

    • Vincent, I am not arguing (and I don’t think anyone else is either) that the government does not have the right to reduce our income; we may say that it’s not wise, but it is within their power. They are entitled to determine our revenues (or that part which comes from them), and they are also entitled to require that we live within our means. What we would however argue is that it is not appropriate for the government to tell us exactly how we should spend the money, and in particular which posts we may fill and which ones we may not. Doing that changes everything.

      • Jilly Says:

        Indeed. Issues don’t have to be specifically listed in the Constitution to be legally recognised. These new approaches are clearly contrary to the Universities Act. The government would, I am sure, like to revise that Act. However, they can’t just start behaving as if that legislation has already been revised without first putting it through the Dail. Time for the Universities to take an action against the HEA/Department of Finance? Soft diplomacy is NOT working, perhaps something tougher should be tried?

      • VincentH Says:

        Yes, that would be valid if and only if you accepted the Vote and fees for that year as being the full and final cost for that year. But you don’t, each and every promotion and new position has a current and ongoing impingement on the exchequer. And I suspect you could be as autonomous as you liked if your promotions were without nasty side effects.

        • I’m afraid that makes no sense, Vincent. State income is not our only income. Furthermore, once we commit ourselves to not having a deficit, the government’s legitimate interests are met.

          • Fergus Says:

            In common with many other entities, are the universities facing a pensions issue in the future? Are the government’s interests met in that respect or will there be a tab to be picked up for defined benefit pensions which are not being factored into your lack of a deficit?

          • Perry Share Says:

            The government shifted the university pensions funds, along with others such as the ESRI, into the National Pensions Reserve Fund a couple of weeks ago, exactly because they were underfunded.

      • Grainne Says:

        All very reasonable, but, to play devil’s advocate – consider this analogy: If an academic wins a research contract the contract will specify, and the funding body will pay attention to, what staff are hired and how they are contributing to the deliverables of the research project as agreed. They will not write a cheque for the amount in the contract and then stand by as the investigator proceeds to hire staff who do not directly contribute to the goals of the project, but instead do something else entirely – let us say work on administering a project funded from another source. The investigator might contend that how the money is used none of the funding agency’s business so long as the deliverables and research output materialises. However, the funder can legitimately ask in this situation whether then the original contract could have been fulfilled without hiring these particular staff members. The frontline researchers, working to deliver the results under the direction of the principal investigator, equally, may become disgruntled if they perceive they are having to struggle harder than they might have expected to deliver the required outputs.

        It could be argued that the interests of all parties, who are after all working to the same end are served by having this level of accountability.

        • Grainne, research funding is generally project based, and the principal investigator is accountable for the money and has to demonstrate that it was spent for the purposes, and in accordance with the breakdown, agreed with the funder. So the issue you highlight couldn’t actually happen. But even then, the research funding body does not get involved in the individual recruitment decisions, it just receives a report on a regular basis which will demonstrate that the money is being spent appropriately.

          More generally, the universities are not at all suggesting they should not account for how they spend the money, and we also accept that we must stay within our means. What we are against is a micro-managing of individual decisions.

  2. FPL Says:

    Even worse it would politicise university appointments. Once can imagine that the likes of Morgan Kelly and critics of government policy would find it difficult to be recruited if the government had to authorise their appointment of promotion.

  3. The government has set very ambitious goals for research output to help stimulate our economy. I like these goals, I like this challenge, I’ve seen the difference Masters and PhD grads can make in industry (both SME and MNC here) and I applaud this drive.

    We should all understand that promotion (or at least the expectation) drives many people. Our problem is tying everyone to the same pay scale and hence paying Professors more than lecturers regardless of field. Promotion and pay should not be linked. Pay should not be on a scale and should be negotiated on a one to one basis as it is in most professions.

    If middle management committees in Universities or the government try to cap promotion and hiring then your academic staff will leave. By expecting great research outputs with no pathways for promotion, all you are doing is building up academics for export.

    This country needs exports but not this type!


    • CMK Says:

      So, Aaron, what you end up with is huge HR apparatus in each university as it trys to negotiate individualized contracts with lecturers, professors, post doctoral researchers etc, etc? And this cuts costs, how? Then Professor X believes Professor Y’s salary isn’t justified, because the latter gets a couple of grand more than the former, and seeks to have it reviewed; calls in the lawyers, injuncts the Department/School until the matter is resolved; legal costs mount, people become demoralized and multiply this process, potentially, by several hundred across the Irish university sector.

      Pay scales cut all that nonsense out, they have intrinsic unjust elements, granted, but, on balance, they work well. Variable pay rates – performance related etc – might work in the snake pit of business, but in education and other vital services they will be a disaster…..

      • CMK. Your comments are not well informed. I know SMEs in Ireland with one HR person and I know multi-nationals here which are larger than most Universities with smaller HR divisions. Individual contracts are the norm in industry and they cope, just fine. They also work just fine in the 3rd level sectors in other countries.


  4. Perry Share Says:

    I agree that the so-called ‘Employment Control Framework’ is going to make it almost impossible to deliver even existing programmes in the HE sector, let alone anything new or innovative. Already maternity leave, parental leave, retirements, leave without pay, research positions, Strategic Innovation Fund positions – all are being blocked. Even externally funded positions (eg EU funded research) is under threat. This is not the ‘smart economy’, it is the totally stupid economy!

    • Perry Share Says:

      I meant of course cover for maternity leave. The government hasn’t quite got around to abolishing maternity leave yet, though it wouldn’t surprise me if its on the agenda.

  5. Jilly Says:

    To put it bluntly, why would I agree to take on more work if I know that no matter how well I do it, I won’t be promoted or paid more? Good luck to University managers trying to find people to take on Head of Dept, Head of School roles from now on. These are mind-boggling hard jobs, with long hours and numbing amounts of paperwork. They’re traditionally rewarded with moderate ‘allowances’, and count a lot towards future promotions. Why would anyone now agree to do them?

    • Perry Share Says:

      And not made any easier if every resource allocation decision you make has to be OK’d by the Department of Finance. We’ll probably see a lot more accountancy lecturers in the system, with a parallel reduction in literary theorists (and sociologists!).

  6. The most striking line in the Irish Times report for me is “Broadly, employment in the critical research sector is protected under the new framework”. If accurate this is evidence – if more was needed – that research (which actually costs the universities money since it is not fully funded by SFI etc) comes at the cost of teaching. The traditional role of the university has been usurped, with no clear evidence that the investment in research can generate the desired economic return.

    • Declan, we have all argued that the full economic cost of research projects need to be reflected in the funding, and we are on our way towards that. I would however disagree with you about the benefits of investment in research – and you need only look at North Carolina to see how a backward rural economy was transformed by research investment (Research Triangle Park).

  7. VincentH Says:

    Not the only income, but by far the largest.

    But this freeze, it is not the first time this has happened, I suspect you were out of the country last time.

  8. otto Says:

    “Furthermore, once we commit ourselves to not having a deficit, the government’s legitimate interests are met.”

    That seems to me entirely correct. So how exactly is the employment control regime being justified? What do the HEA say when you put this point to them?

    • Give me a few days, Otto, and I’ll tell you! There hasn’t been a meeting with them, yet. In fairness, I don’t think this is coming from the HEA, but rather from the Department of Finance.

      • otto Says:

        The Dept of Finance would seem, even more clearly than the HEA, to have an interest only in a balanced budget or similar overall financial target.

  9. Ernie Ball Says:

    The people directly to blame for this are those university presidents who ran up huge deficits by spending hand over fist on consultants, ‘gateway projects’, vice-presidents by the fistful, etc. That this profligacy was accompanied by a neo-liberal rhetoric of using the tools of the ‘free market’ to make the universities ‘leaner and meaner’ is only one among many ironies.

    That sucking sound you hear is all of the best brains in the university sector heading to America.

  10. Kelly Says:

    The idea of an ‘Employment Control Framework’ for HE just makes me want to weep.

    In the UK, when Thatcher came down hard on university funding, the universities started to receive less money and were asked more questions about what they did with that money. It might seem a bit paradoxical that the state can reduce funding while at the same time make more demands for accountability from that funding, but it is typical of public sector funding reforms worldwide. I actually believe that the state should have a good idea of what the universities do and how they do it and should even evaluate the impact of its own funding mechanisms and changes to such mechanisms.

    The problem here in Ireland seems to be that the government does not even know which questions to ask. It does not evaluate its own policies (or lack thereof); it does not seek evidence for change and it certainly does not seem to understand how universities work. I’m making some sweeping generalizations here but this latest idea is all about control rather than accountability and there seems to be no justification for it whatsoever.

  11. John Says:

    Given the recent publication by TCD that less than 20% of their budget is spent on Undergrad teaching and the widely publicised case of a University Dept head moonlighting as a PWT Lecturer in an IOT is it any wonder that a framework has been put in place. It has also become common place for a large amount of Undergrad work to be placed under post grads. So the question is being asked in the Dept of Finance as to what is going on. In the IOT sector rigidity/control is the order of the day and the word is out that efficiencies are to be found in the university/ research sector. Guys you might have to start teaching.

    • John, where did you get that figure from? The data on TCD I have in front of me state that 67 per cent of its budget is spent on teaching and teaching support. All external reviews and audits covering the university sector have confirmed to date that there is not much scope for efficiencies. Irish universities educate students for roughly half the cost that arises in UK universities.

    • iot Says:

      One small thing here: the IOT’s have been also hit with this framework, and some of them are a lot more dependent on part time staff than the universities.

  12. bitter coward Says:

    Don’t want to incriminate myself here.

    I am a part-time lecturer. I see alot of passion on the part of my fellow teaching staff. Conversely, I also see alot of stagnation.

    Where I see opportunities- to propose courses, work with the community, with secondary school students- the full time staff see alot of bother and they c.b.a’d.

    I don’t know if I’m going to get my teaching hours again this year. I’ve been told my hours only provisionally as the HEA is making severe cut backs. How are courses going to run? Yes, maybe some of those well-paid lecturers will have to teach now. Wonder how that will work out for the students?

    My generation is not going to get pensions the previous generations did from 30 plus years of permanent work. I’ll likely be working into my 80s. I have very little sympathy for my colleagues. Even I think the salaries are high, and the hourly wage is high. I would be glad to see a cut in pensions and salaries.

    Why do I wish it would go down? So people who didn’t give a rat’s backside about teaching wouldn’t just get into teaching for the money.

    • anonymous Says:

      I actually couldn’t agree more.

      Let’s face it, if the government (and industry for that matter) thought that they were getting good value for money from investing in research, they would be trying their utmost not to cut the funding, whereas at the moment, universities are being targeted.

      Until these people who “don’t give a rat’s backside” (who in general are a minority) sort out their attitudes, and there is a change in policy where the “expert” lecturers actually take part in some research (and put an end from “supervising” from their desks), I do not believe there will be any faith in university research.

      The current system sees the possibility for lecturers to supervise whatever they wish, while they are NEVER held accountable for their own lack of knowledge in particular subject. As a research student, I have come across several cases where lecturers claim to be experts, but didn’t know how to use their own equipment. Insane, no?

      It is time to make people responsible for money and resources that are spent. If people don’t carry their weight, fire them, or make them work for free. I think that Sarkozy has the right idea. If your an academic, prove you’re an expert, increase your output, feel the ‘pressure’.

  13. steve Says:

    higher education is not all about the papers and grades it is all about optimizing the knowledge you have to everydaylife

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