Terms and conditions of employment in Irish higher education

One of the great uncertainties in higher education right now is how academic terms and conditions may change in the future. This is made more complicated by the fact that such terms are very loosely, if at all, defined in the universities, while they are regulated in some detail in the institutes of technology and some other colleges. In the universities there is an understanding that academic staff must be engaged in work that will provide proper teaching for students and will lead to high value research outputs (as well as administrative and external work); precise working time and conditions are not set out, but the principle of goodwill in fact produces workloads and a working week for many that is highly demanding and in terms of hours far greater than in most private sector employments. In the institutes workloads are included in an agreed and binding framework that sets teaching contact hours and provides for fixed holidays.

All of this is being called into question by recent comments on higher education and by the government’s agreement with the public service trade unions (the ‘Croke Park’ agreement). Under the education clauses of this agreement working hours are to be extended (easy when you have fixed hours, less easy when you don’t) and other contractual terms are to be reformed, in return for a commitment by the government not to cut pay any further.

The implementation of these terms was always going to be tricky, but one factor creating problems was the refusal by the Teachers’ Union of Ireland (TUI), which organises staff in the institutes of technology, to ratify the agreement or to be bound by it. The government’s threatened response to this was to suggest redundancies for the institutes. The union blinked, and has agreed to enter into discussions about the implementation of the Croke Park agreement.

But this will not be easy, as an email distributed by former TUI President and lecturer in the Dublin Institute of Technology, Paddy Healy, shows. In this email dated December 15, he lists concessions he thinks are being demanded of the union in relation to academic working conditions and suggests that institutes’ academic staff were being ‘bludgeoned into submission’, and that it would be ‘suicide to do a deal with a dying government’.

The Croke Park agreement in any case has an uncertain future, but it is unlikely that a tactic of militant opposition to reform of working conditions will play well with the public. Some of the more specific ‘protections’ enjoyed by institute of technology staff (such as long summer holidays) are hard to defend, or at any rate it would be unwise to defend them publicly. However, the fight (if that is what it is) on these issues could so collateral damage to the universities, whose capacity to extract commitment and additional work from academics would be seriously undermined if minimum (and thus inevitably maximum) workloads were imposed.

Both the universities and the institutes do however need to become much more sophisticated in recording and publicising actual staff workloads, to overcome the widespread perception that working conditions not onerous. Staff resistance to the collation of such information (and there is some, in some institutions) could come back to haunt them.

This entire process is a highly sensitive one and may easily go wrong.

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10 Comments on “Terms and conditions of employment in Irish higher education”

  1. Vincent Says:

    That agreement is without doubt the most insane bit of gibberish. It could only have been come up with by a FF party with it’s back to the wall and accepted by dusty civil service unions where both view their survival as being synonymous with the survival of the State.

  2. otto Says:

    “Both the universities and the institutes do however need to become much more sophisticated in recording and publicising actual staff workloads”

    I understand thy vP is saying this, but this is an absurd suggestion nonetheless. Recording and publicising staff workloads at universities would generate a bureaucracy all of its own, timeconsuming for both staff and administration, for no research or teaching outcome benefit whatsoever, within a university system which is already *very heavy* on bureaucratic timewasting for teaching and research staff. Look to international best practice: at the universities that are admired most, in America, I know from experience that they operate without any mechanism for recording and publicising academic staff workloads. Indeed, any such suggestion from a university administrator would probably be followed shortly by their resignation. Rather, staff are evaluated on the basis of actual outputs, including published research and (yes, published) teaching evaluations, and those outputs/incentives drive staff effort. It is in those areas that Irish universities need to improve and perhaps even are improving.

    FvP seems partly to have internalised the idea of recording staff workload etc as a way of responding to the current political environment. If so, that argument can only be made on the basis that these are not benefits but that it is necessary to do some very stupid and counterproductive things – policies wholly contrary to international best practice – in order to prevent even worse outcomes. It would be better, I would say, to argue from the beginning that while Irish universities need to improve, all suggestions for improvement should be made on the basis of evidence-based arguments that they lead to better outcomes, looking at international comparisons and particularly management in US universities. On that basis ‘recording the workload’ etc of academic staff activities completely fails.

    • Otto, there are two dimensions to this. From the perspective of the ideal operation of a university, I agree with you.

      But the spirit of the age now is to require high levels of transparency, and this has increasingly been seen as justifying inputs as well as demonstrating outputs. Universities are not alone here: financial institutions, government agencies and so forth are all subjected to these demands. If we were to refuse to publish this kind of information, the reaction of the wider public will be to assume that we have too much ‘fat’ in the system. We have absolutely no option, if we want to have the support and confidence of the wider community.

      • otto Says:

        Sorry, that’s not good enough. It’s not the ‘ideal operation of a university’ that is at stake – we in Ireland are a long way from that. A move towards recording-and-publishing academic staff workloads would be a very substantial addition to costly-timewasting in a university system which already has far too much costly timewasting. To the public etc which demands reform, offer changes, even demanding changes, which actually improve the likelihood that universities will meet Irelands education and research needs. What you are talking about here could potentially be a very big and very stupid permanent change for the worse. If so, even in the current environment it should be rejected.

        Publishing teaching evaluations, by contrast, would also be a substantial shock to the current system, but could infact drive a lot of improvements. Similarly, making sure that students do regular (e.g. weekly) short written work for many classes would be another substantial change for many Irish universities. There are probably a lot of other or better examples you can think of from your time as DCU president.

        I understand the wider environment, but it is no reason to accept proposals which will make things worse for teaching and research. Keep your thinking evidence-based, and ask the question, where is the evidence that this very costly change would improve outcomes, given the world’s leading universities have never adopted such a system?

  3. otto Says:

    Two other points for FvP:
    1. Can you please publish the Paddy Healy email on this site? It’s not a private document and would be worth discussing in more detail.
    2. Maybe you have thoughts on this piece which says Irish university funding cuts not as bad as feared:

    • This is the text of Paddy Healy’s email, in full:

      ‘From: Paddy Healy [paddy.healy@eircom.net]
      Sent: 15 December 2010 16:07
      To: ‘Paddy Healy’
      Subject: June 20 Gone–Dept of Ed

      Reliable information is circulating in HR Departments of the Institutes in relation to the demands being put to TUI in current talks on Croke Park Deal
      1 extra hour per week teaching or other duties to be in addition to 560 annual hrs
      Summer Break to be reduced to 6 weeks
      Full Maximum 560(L), 630(AL) hrs to be delivered annually
      All night weighting to be abolished
      All hours credit for course co-ordination to be abolished
      Credit to be allowed for post-graduate supervision as part of annual 560 hrs at a rate to be negotiated
      Post grad supervision to be continuously delivered on a 12month basis
      I believe that all third Level Area reps should be present at these talks (this is not the case)
      I believe that attempts to make lecturers redundant and the above demands should be resisted in common
      Any “trade off “ would be disastrous for union
      Talks with IFUT in relation to University Staff are being dragged out until Institute Staff have been bludgeoned into submission
      It would be suicide to do a deal with a dying government

      Paddy Healy’

  4. kevin denny Says:

    I agree with Otto that its outputs that matter not inputs and getting into the business of recording inputs would be a nightmare. That said, I don’t believe the public think that way.
    Say you have an academic who’s teaching and research comes to 30 hours a week but he manages to publish a paper in Nature every month. Well to us he’s exceptionally productive but to the public this is just a guy who doesn’t do a proper week’s work. They don’t care about papers in Nature and have no way of knowing how exceptional he is.
    That’s an extreme example but the point is we do have to care about how we are perceived. It’s not helpful when certain TD’s set out to mislead the public on the matter.
    Publishing teaching evaluations, though one might wince at it, could help.

    • otto Says:

      I, like many others, would feel much better if the employees of AIB, Anglo, and BoI were required by regulation to hit themselves on the head with a hammer on a daily basis. However, although this policy might allow public frustration to vent itself, it would not in fact be conducive to improving the Irish financial system and might even make things worse (I know, not easy to imagine). I would not expect regulators to adopt such a policy or for prominent banking officials to support it. In the same way, even in an environment where universities have many critics, we should not support – or say that ‘we have no option’ but accept – policies which are the equivalent of agreeing to hit ourselves regularly on the head with a hammer on a permanent basis.

      Find some changes and reforms which evidence and international best practice suggests would actually improve teaching and research. It’s a simple suggestion …

  5. Al Says:

    I have to agree with Otto and Kevin

    I cant buy into the false imperative that “the people” want and therefore should get.

    I suppose we will have to accept and work with whatever comes from the negotiations but the whole situation is ripe to turn Irish third level in to some sort of HSE thing.

    Further, I hope that whoever ends up being the decision maker doesnt buy into some school of ‘total’ management that thinks they can improve things.

    We work with students!!! flawed, unreliable and undependable material!!!

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