Staffing higher education – the snip is coming

‘An Bord Snip’ – the  Special Group on Public Service Numbers and Expenditure Programmes – is recommending in its report that there should be a reduction in the staffing of higher education by 2,000. As the group estimates that the sector employs 20,873 persons, this amounts to a cut of 10 per cent. How this reduction is to be achieved is far from clear. The narrative of the report doesn’t particularly address questions of over-staffing, but rather suggests that staff in both the institutes of technology and the universities work inefficiently, and in particular that their teaching contact hours could be increased. If we were to agree with this assertion (no particular evidence is cited to support it), it would still be far from clear how that might produce staffing reductions of this order of magnitude.

In a previous post we have already looked at the ’employment control framework’ and is implications. It is becoming clear that the way in which state funding of universities will be adjusted will make inevitable reductions in the costs of staffing borne by the exchequer. I would however suggest that if we are to achieve this it should be approached in a more sensible way. It is, on the whole, unhelpful to keep suggesting inefficiencies and under-performance; benchmarked against international standards, Irish higher education institutions are hugely under-resourced in staffing terms and quite amazingly efficient. By continuing to assert that this is not so, and that Irish higher education is inefficient, those doing so are likely to produce a negative backlash which will make any restructuring in staffing terms much more difficult.

It is much more sensible to approach it from a needs basis, rather than some cod assessment of performance. The needs argument is simply this: for the next while the taxpayer cannot afford to pay for the same number of staff, and reductions in the cost are needed. The institutions should then be allowed to plan for this as constructively as possible, and this could and should include a search for other revenues to allow them to maintain staffing levels at the best possible rate to meet quality needs.

A discussion along these lines is likely to be much more productive.

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15 Comments on “Staffing higher education – the snip is coming”

  1. Paul Doran Says:

    Hi. Nothing unusual from An Bord Nua,How dare they attack the Educational System, I understand the importanace of education and how it can lift you out of the poverty trap by empowering you, giving you confidence to speak, to stand up and be counted. and to improve your life not ony for yourself but all around you.We cannot spend enough, I left school at 15
    and what a regret that was ( Now 46) I try daily to show my kids how knowledge is so important, these well heeled people just don’t get it.They don’t live in the rael world, where your kids are taught in classrooms of 30 odd children, some kids in the classroom , need extra help to bring them on, the classroom are 30 year old prefabs, the smell of urine is stinking, the rooms are damp, there is no proper ventilation,some have to bring their desk and chairs to another rooms..We save hard to bring them to DCU eash winter and summer time, no social evenings for
    us.and now when they go to CTYI in DCU the State cuts e 90,000 from the CTYI grant, which leaves to bigger classes> You just can’t win.Education, Education, Education it is the scret.Why can’t they understand it.It is so simple
    Paul Doran
    Clondalkin

  2. Ernie Ball Says:

    If we were to agree with this assertion (no particular evidence is cited to support it), it would still be far from clear how that might produce staffing reductions of this order of magnitude.

    Here’s how: Ireland suddenly introduces teaching workloads way out of line with international standards. All of the best staff leave for greener pastures. Problem solved.

  3. Vincent Says:

    p64,vol 2 ….Further, the Group is of the view that the allocation to the research councils to increase Ph.D.
    outputs should be reduced because of the uncertainty about the absorptive capacity of industry to
    employ fourth level graduates and the propensity of Ph.D. graduates to emigrate…. I do not get this at all. It seems very contradictory to other stated ideas and a reversal to a time where the emigrant shovel was the tool of choice.

  4. Vincent Says:

    There is a very worrisome back to basics Luditeish tone to this report. Scepticism, I was expecting, but this is something very different.

  5. Jilly Says:

    Fine. We can start teaching undergraduates in giant barns, a few thousand at a time. No seminars, no tutorials, and no personal contact of any kind. We’ve already been creeping in that direction for the last few years, thanks to chronic underfunding and rising numbers, but this will confirm it.

    Irish university education: never mind the quality, feel the width.

  6. Vincent Says:

    Jilly in Arts they were doing that already.

    • Jilly Says:

      As I said, Vincent, it has certainly already been going in that direction. But given this country’s appauling staff-student ratios, the level of personal attention (even just knowing their names) given to Irish students is actually pretty impressive. This is a minor miracle, however, and any further worsening of the situation will result in a collapse of standards and the student experience.

      It seems to me that the timing of this – to coincide with the reintroduction of fees in some form – is going to create a perfect storm in the university system. I notice that the representative of some parents’ association, being interviewed on RTE last week about the PRSI/fees proposal, said that she felt that at least it would encourage students and their families to ‘demand better products’ from the university system, once they were paying customers.

      So, I predict that what will happen is that these ‘paying customers’ will begin demanding more one-to-one contact, better support services, smaller classes, more hand-outs and feedback. All a fine aspiration, but not one which can be achieved on the proposed 5000 euro a year fee. What they’ll be looking for are the structures and services of, say, Harvard. Harvard currently charges just under 40,000 dollars a year (without room and board).

      It’s very simple. You pay 5000 euro a year in fees, you get a 5000 euro a year education. The big quesion is, is this what the Irish people want?

      • Vincent Says:

        The Irish want what they have always wanted. A reasonably straight fair and clear run at things.
        They want to be able to compete on equal if not better terms. And expect you to explain how this is done.
        The mistake you and the Author -Himself from WestMeath- make is in mixing up when you are active and when you are passive.

      • cian Says:

        One would imagine that if 5,000 euro a year were spent on teaching, rather than research, one could get quite a decent education from it. If students are to pay directly for their education, I do not see why they should be asked to subsidise the research of universities.

  7. Jilly Says:

    No Vincent, I’m afraid I have to disagree with your statement there. What I’ve increasingly come to see is that the Irish people expect to receive the kind of public services (including but certainly not limited to education) that are delivered by countries such as those in Scandanavia. High quality, free-at-point-of-use, and available to all. But they expect to pay the taxes of countries like the US, where many of these services are not public goods at all. So, Keynesian services at neo-liberal tax rates. Is it any wonder we’re in the mess we’re in?

  8. cormac Says:

    Hi Ferdinand, what are your thoughts on the offer of a 3 year leave of absence for academics? I’m very interested in this, as it is a wonderful opportunity to concentrate on writing my book, taking a sabbatical abroad etc.

    The trouble is that 3 years is quite a jump, and 12.5 k per annum would hardly cover a mortgage! Cormac


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