Public Service Agreement: sectoral agreement on higher education

As I have noted previously, the proposed Public Service Agreement that is to be the basis for pay and conditions in the Irish public sector has so-called ‘sectoral agreements’ appended to it. One of these concerns education, and the subsection on ‘universities and other higher education institutes’ (not including Institutes of Technology, by the way, as these have a separate section) runs as follows, in full:

• With effect from the start of the 2010/11 academic year, the provision of an additional hour per week to be available to facilitate, at the discretion of management, teaching and learning in the university/institute.
• Co-operation with the introduction of academic workload management and full economic costing models and with the compilation of associated data to support these.
• Co-operation with redeployment/re-organisation/rationalisation arising from the review of Higher Education strategy and changing economic and social circumstances.
• A comprehensive review and revision of employment contracts to identify and remove any impediments to the development of an optimum teaching, learning and research environment. This review and revision to be completed in advance of the start of the 2010/11 academic year.

As I have pointed out before, I am not absolutely sure how this qualifies as an ‘agreement’, since the key players have not been involved in the discussions. However, leaving that aside we need to engage with the substance.

The first bullet point is is not, at least for now, meaningful for the university sector. We do not have a fixed number of teaching hours for academic staff, and this being so the idea of ‘adding an hour’ has no meaning. We may be seeing the emergence of pressure to change this, and to create a contractual obligation on staff as to the precise number of student contact hours; any such move would probably have the effect of reducing contact hours in practice. The second and third bullet points are in train already, though of course we do not yet know what the higher education strategy group will propose; the idea of agreeing to something where the content is not yet known might have its own problems. The final bullet point suggests, at least by implication, that employment in universities should be based on something legally quite different from what we have now. There may well be an argument for doing this, and certainly a review would be useful: but conducted by whom, and with what terms of reference?

Maybe we should just read this ‘sectoral agreement’ as suggesting that we need higher education reform. I would not argue with that proposition, at this level of generality. But not every reform is a good reform, and what strikes me here is that this brief text has been assembled with what looks very much like an outsider’s perspective on higher education, and maybe not one that is based on serious understanding of how the sector works. It will be important to flesh out the meaning of these clauses quickly, and to ensure that whatever processes are envisaged to implement this ‘agreement’ are worked out with the sector.

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6 Comments on “Public Service Agreement: sectoral agreement on higher education”

  1. iainmacl Says:

    This is actually disturbing further confirmation of the extent to which there is serious ignorance of the reality of work in the universities on the part, it would seem here, not just of government but of the union representatives that participated in such drafting. The ‘revision of employment contracts to identify and remove any impediments to the development of an optimum teaching, learning and research environment’ is particularly farcical given that the most significant impediment is the Employment Control Framework itself. Forcing institutions to abandon tenure, to issue some contracts on a two year basis, to non-replacement of administrative and technical support, etc, will all have the effect of ensuring Ireland slips even more quickly down the league tables so beloved of politicians. It will be difficult to attract international applicants (permanent post in any other country, contract one here and no technical/admin support) or to sustain the morale of those who are here. Considering the demands to ‘do more with less’ this second point is crucial.

  2. Jilly Says:

    Entirely agree with the concerns raised here, and with Iainmacl’s points above. I’m not at all sure what the revision of contracts is supposed to mean – I presume they can’t revise existing contracts (am I right in that presumption?!), so it’ll be about new contracts from this point on, which will have a terrible effect on recruitment of future staff.

    As for the extra hour, this makes me laugh like a drain. It can only be implemented on the understanding that I have a set number of hours per week, presumably 40. If that’s the case, then far from ‘giving’ an extra hour to college, I like most permanent staff will be working considerably less hours per week than I do now… Or perhaps my ‘extra hour’ could be added to the work I already do on Sundays, bank holidays and evenings?!

  3. Vincent Says:

    But this seems written more with the hand of a French person than anyone with ANY contact with the system in the Ireland UK Oz NZ Canada or America.
    Mind you, you do not help matters when people start casting big headed comments about PhDs to those that are friendly. Nor when your University in a fit of meanness decides that it can remove the franchise from the body corporate that are outside the walls when electing new officers.

  4. maestro Says:

    vincent, what are you saying? I can’t follow your logic.

    • Vincent Says:

      I’ve read a good few products of the Civil Service and they are normally written in a Whitehall metre, when readable at all. This has that more injected feel of those trained in a Grande École.

  5. […] normal trade union rules about respecting majority verdicts). So what should happen? I have myself suggested that the agreement, or more particularly its specific terms on higher education, is misguided and […]

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