Ireland: time to end ’employment control’

For the past two years a moratorium on recruitment has been operating in the Irish public service. The government made it clear from the outset that this moratorium was also to apply to the universities and institutes of technology, but after some unusually strong resistance from the sector an adapted version was imposed, known by a rather Stalinist sounding name, the ’employment control framework’. This was the subject of further discussions and some adjustments, and under the final version a cut of 6 per cent of staffing was applied between 31 December 2008 and 31 December 2010, which we will shortly have reached. The signs so far are that the universities (I don’t have information on the IOTs, and would welcome some comments on that) have managed to achieve this target. In addition, under the ’employment control framework’ all promotions have also been stopped.

It now seems likely that the ’employment control framework’ will be extended into 2011, with further staffing cuts. But just in case anyone is still listening, it seems right to me to put forward a strong case against any such move. Here are the arguments.

First, universities are not full of easily transferable persons. The ’employment control framework’ in essence obliges institutions to freeze a significant proportion of vacancies as they arise. But vacancies can occur in areas that are of huge strategic priority, as well as those where staffing reductions can be more easily managed. The logic in other organisations might be to transfer staff between areas, but you cannot do that with academics. A history lecturer is not competent to teach physics, no matter how much retraining you offer. Therefore the consequence is that areas that suffer a disproportionately large number of vacancies are at risk of closure, even if they are in a strategically vital area.

Secondly (and this is related to the above point), the ’employment control framework’ forces universities to behave non-stratgically, as vacancies cannot on the whole be planned.

Thirdly, the ’employment control framework’ places at risk the availability of academic expertise, which is the key ingredient in educational quality. As we reduce staffing more and more, quality comes under direct threat (a point which we have arguably long passed). As the system’s quality is its main selling point, particularly to overseas students, we are at risk of making our higher education unattractive to its future customers.

Fourthly, the ’employment control framework’ is a direct assault on university autonomy, as it is a mechanism for detailed operational control by the state and its agencies. It is also not a good device for achieving government aims: it would be far more logical to decide on budget allocations, and then leave it to the universities to decide how to manage within their means.

The ’employment control framework’ is a bureaucrat’s solution to an education budget problem. It has already done significant damage to the sector, and it must be removed as a matter of urgency. Maintaining it jeopardises quality and excellence and induces poor morale and staff commitment. It undermines good management and planning. It is bad, and it is wrong. It must not be continued.

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7 Comments on “Ireland: time to end ’employment control’”

  1. “It is also not a good device for achieving government aims: it would be far more logical to decide on budget allocations, and then leave it to the universities to decide how to manage within their means.”

    I agree – I see the same problem in other parts of the public sector (including government departments). However, part of the ‘manage within their means’ mandate should include the ability to hire and fire permanently employed staff. As well as to set (or reset) salary levels commensurate with resources and worth.

    Unfortunately a lot of the rational for ’employment control frameworks’ and the like is a desperate attempt to limbo dance under the constraint that people in permanent employment in the public sector cannot be fired.

    This is no longer sustainable (it never was), and so the task now is to decentralise decision-making about staffing and expenditure to lower levels in the public sector where the knowledge resides (in the Hayekian sense) on what has to be done to deliver better service for less money.

    This is why I find things like the Croke Park Agreement so disturbing – they seek to enforce a centrally determined plan on organisations that know better.

  2. Al Says:

    Perhaps the universities could seek financial independence by a long term financial arrangement leveraged against their land banks.

  3. Vincent Says:

    Where did the ‘legitimate expectation’ principle come from do you know.
    Might it have anything to do with the transfer of the Irish part of the Home Civil Service to the Free State.

  4. copernicus Says:

    “A history lecturer is not competent to teach physics, no matter how much retraining you offer”

    So I have found out, but it is more in the attitude.

  5. Vincent Says:

    I keep hearing on the TV and Wireless in the context that the pay and pensions cannot be reduced in the Civil Service because they entered the service with the Legitimate Expectation of a X; Y; and Z.
    And this is delivered as if it had been tested in the Courts at some point in the past. I wondered if you had come by it at some point in the legal capacity.

    I have a vague memory of reading about negotiations between the Free State on the Loan Repayments pre 1932, these payments in the North were returned to pay Pensions but wasn’t returned to Dublin. And in connection, there is something in one of those 1920’s treaties which protects the civil service for the Free State was required to pay pensions to those that retired.

  6. Colum McCaffery Says:

    You do realise that very many people talk as if their “industry” or sector has unique difficulties.

    Most organisations find it difficult or impossible to redeploy staff with very particular skills. Organisations have closed down areas as specialised as I.T., design and photography without forcing out staff or throwing hands up in the air and crying, “Impossible!” It’s not a problem peculiar to universities. It calls for lots of management work to examine the degree to which individual staff may be deployed to a growing area or an understaffed area. Some staff can be easily redeployed, some cannot be redeployed, some can be redeployed or partially redeployed if changes are made, and if it is accepted that the outcome may be less than ideal. A ban on recruitment might be a marvellous opportunity for bored but progressive staff and a management wanting to negotiate new ways of doing things.

    Before allowing any state organisation freedom to recruit, it would surely be necessary to rid the organisation of practices, structures, appointments etc. built up during the hey day of managerialism. While I’d be surprised if central authorities were not similarly plagued, I’m sure that there are sensible people who fear that freedom to recruit might result in vacancies for positions which tend to have “strategic”, “innovation”, “change” etc. in their title. I’m not being funny here or trying to have a go at anyone or any organisation but it is necessary to be vague as dealing with the bitter fruits of managerialism is not easy – particularly as inefficient featherbedding is masked by a lexicon of toughness and efficiency.

    The notion that someone cannot be fired from either the public or private sector is a handy lie behind which a lazy, incompetent administration can hide. It is absolutely correct that we have progressed to a stage where someone cannot be arbitrarily sacked but that does not mean that “gross messers” cannot be fired. All it means is that it has to be done slowly, deliberately and following procedures. That is to say it requires work.

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