One of the undoubtedly maddest measures affecting higher education taken by the Irish government in recent years has been the ‘Employment Control Framework’, mentioned on several occasions in this blog. This Orwellian sounding regulation, imposed as part of the recent cost-cutting drive in the public service, sets out to reduce staffing in higher education institutions, restrict the capacity of universities and colleges to appoint staff to vacant posts and prohibit them from promoting anyone within the system – even where institutions have already met salary cost reduction targets. It has in this way put an end to career development within higher education.
Trinity College Dublin decided to deal with this situation by promoting 27 members of staff last year, but delaying the associated salary increases until January 2011, the date on which the ‘Employment Control Framework’ formally ceased to have effect. It has now been reported that the Higher Education Authority intends to impose ‘massive fines’ on TCD, so as to protect the exchequer ‘from any unauthorised costs’.
There are several things wrong with this. First, there have been no ‘unauthorised costs’, nor could there be. Under the Irish legal framework, no individual costs incurred by any university have to be ‘authorised’ by anyone, except where salaries are paid outside of the normal public service pay scales (which does not apply here, as all the promoted academics will continue to be paid on those scales). Secondly, TCD has (like all the universities) applied the salary cost reduction targets imposed by the government; in other words, the pay costs in the College are precisely in line with what the government required. Thirdly, the steps taken by TCD did not break the ‘Employment Control Framework’, which came to an end in December 2010. Finally, it is outside the HEA’s statutory powers to apply fines, for this or any other reason.
Career development is vital for morale and productivity in this beleaguered sector, and to remove it altogether makes no sense, when staff costs are being reduced by the institutions as required. But beyond that, it is unacceptable for the institutions of the state to seek to punish universities with penalties that lie outside their jurisdiction.
It is to be hoped that the HEA re-thinks its position in this matter.