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.