Controlling academic employment

Irish higher education is facing a number of challenges right now. Some of these have been aired extensively in public debate, including the inadequacy of funding and the unwillingness of politicians to introduce the one obvious solution; internal dissent within some universities; moves to introduce rationalisation that may undermine the efficiency of the system; and so on. But one that has been creeping up on us and that may have a greater effect than all the others is the so-called ‘Employment Control Framework’.

This particular measure was introduced by the government in 2009, as apart of the implementation of an employment and promotions embargo that had been imposed on the entire public service. It has to be acknowledged that some of the early aspects of the framework that had caused the universities particular concerns were later dropped: an insistence, for example, that all recruitment had to be approved by government on a case-by-case basis; or that only one in three academic vacancies could be filled, and no administrative vacancies at all. Under the final version of the revised framework, universities are allowed to decide themselves what posts to fill, but subject to a number of conditions. The two most critical conditions are that the overall headcount in universities must be reduced by 6 per cent between December 2008 and December 2010; and that nobody can be appointed to a permanent or tenured post, at all.

Universities have somewhat grudgingly gone along with this, and I believe will meet the targets in the timescale set out. But this has in part been based on an assumption that the framework is a temporary one and will come to an end this coming December. Right now there are signs that this may not turn out to be the case, and that further reductions will be imposed in 2011.

It needs to be stated clearly that any continuation of the Employment Control Framework will have a profound and lasting effect on Irish higher education. At the most obvious level, it is having a significant impact on the student-staff ratio, which will amongst other things have the effect of eroding the global league table position of Irish universities. But it goes beyond that: the staff reductions do not apply equally across the board (though if they did it would in any case be non-strategic), they typically have their greatest impact wherever there is most staffing turnover. This can be anywhere, but where it happens may not be where reductions can most easily be absorbed. Furthermore, we are moving from a tenured academic profession at the core of the system to one which will soon be dominated by temporary employees with no longer term prospects and therefore little loyalty to their institutions. Even the reducing number of tenured faculty will have no opportunity to be promoted, with profound effects on morale and commitment.

And if all this continues into 2011, we can expect to find that some subject areas will become non-viable due to staff shortages, and traditional teaching methods will be unrealistic as the dwindling number of faculty will be unable to operate them for the growing number of students.

I am not suggesting that universities should be exempted from budget cuts; they cannot be.  But I am saying that the government needs to allow universities to decide for themselves how they will deal with budget cuts. And I am saying that the Employment Control Framework’s more petty restrictions compromise university autonomy and unnecessarily damage morale. The Framework is causing serious and lasting damage to the Irish system of higher education.

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6 Comments on “Controlling academic employment”

  1. James Says:

    I would question the legality of the Government choosing to restrict employment to temporary status at present. The EU Council Directive 1999/70/EC states specifically that “employment contracts of an indefinite duration are the general form of employment”. Of course there are and should be exceptions to this which the Directive acknowledges, but academic employment would not classify here, no more than employment as a garda or nurse would (excepting providing maternity cover, for instance). There was a case (which currently escapes me, but is referred to in Cox et al, Employment Law in Ireland) involving a HSE employee who held that his temporary employment had become indefinite by virtue of his continued status under the transposed act, but the HSE held that only the Public Appointments Commission could confer permanent status. The courts ruled that no government could act in contravention with the EU directive, therefore meaning that no LAC could act as a barrier to this person’s permanent status. Hence, the Irish government choosing to only offer temporary employment, where “employment contracts of an indefinite duration are the general form of employment” is clearly against the spirit of the EU legislation, and therefore illegal.

    Hopefully someone will bring a test case on this soon.


  2. All very scary Ferdinand, and reminiscent of the type of stuff this guy talks about in his book regarding academic freedom as it relates to employment conditions, which, while deliberately provocative, is worth a read:

  3. Jilly Says:

    Academia is one of the most globalised professions in the world, in the sense that individuals are operating in a thoroughly international job market. That international job market for academics is currently fairly stagnant, but will begin to pick up, and probably before the Irish economy does. When that happens, academics currently in Ireland will begin to vote with their feet. The first to go will be the up-and-coming ‘superstars’ who can pretty much choose their own jobs, closely followed by the very young entrants into the profession, who are the most mobile because they’re less likely to have family or property commitments here (and they’re the most likely to suffer under the employment conditions described in today’s blog). But not that far behind those two groups may be significant numbers of academics like me: mid-career, not ‘superstars’ but with respectable track-records and prospects, who may have some personal commitments and ties here, but with a lack of promotional prospects and deteriorating working conditions in Ireland, may take the decision to break those ties and go elsewhere.

    That third group is not only very large, but are also the ones currently holding Irish universities together – simply by nature of being mid-career, they’re doing the majority of the teaching, the majority of the research, and the majority of the administration. If they start voting with their feet and leaving the Irish system along with the first two groups, it will sink.

    • wendymr Says:

      And there will also be those who choose to leave academia altogether. There will come a point at which the long hours, the increasing demands of the job, the greater pressure from above due to financial constraints, the lack of any promotion prospects (or even permanent job prospects), continued relatively poor pay, and for some a hostile work environment, will cause people to rethink their commitment to their careers. In my last year or so in the British university system, with yet another reorganisation of pay and grading on the way and many universities starting to cut whole departments, there were quite a few stories in the newspaper of promising and even successful researchers just walking away – one who retrained as a plumber and ended up working far fewer hours and earning almost twice as much money.

      In my own case, I walked away without a job to go to and have never looked back. I moved across the Atlantic and found a new career. I now work a 35-hour week (unheard-of in my 16-year academic career) and am paid, in standard-of-living terms, the same as I was as a university lecturer. Best of all, I know my management values my efforts. My sector is still subject to government funding constraints, and job losses do still occur, so everything’s not perfect – but in terms of health and job satisfaction there’s no comparison.

      Academia is still under-rewarded for the demands made on staff, and with this further increase in casualisation and diminution of career prospects I suspect you’ll see a lot more people voting with their feet and becoming skilled tradespeople, small business owners or even civil servants – and what a loss that will be to higher education and research.

  4. As a student, I can say our universities contain many “lecturers” who don’t deserve to be in the job they are in. Equally I see many part- time/ temporary lecturers who are excellent in regards to teaching, knowledge and support.

    I see certain departments having large budgets to provide tutorials etc, while other departments appear to have nothing left to provide student services.

    Our 3rd level sector is suffering. But who is going to fix it?

  5. […] for Education and Health, and these were supplemented for the third level sector by a controversial Employment Control Framework. That framework has now run its course, but news has seeped out over the course […]

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