‘Employment control’ and the destruction of academic innovation (Colm Harmon)

One of the major challenges facing Irish universities is the so-called ‘Employment Control Framework. Here Professor Colm Harmon, Director of the UCD Geary Institute, outlines some of the practical implications of the application of the ‘framework’.

The ‘Employment Control Framework’ (ECF) has been discussed before in this blog and criticisms of it are well made and well founded. Institutions have been operating under it – nobody likes it, but we have tried to engage with it, on the assumption perhaps that the Framework would eventually die away, or at least revert to some sort of overall plan with the distribution of resources (including hiring) within a particular institution being a matter for that institution.

Until now, appointments at higher education institutions that were funded outside of the core exchequer grant did not need approval. So, research grant income (much of it from US or EU sources, from industry, or from philanthropic organisations and therefore totally non-exchequer and mainly inflows of income into Ireland) could be spent, hirings could be made, and research could take place.

Let me make a side point on this activity to give some context. As lead or co-researcher I have perhaps secured research grant income of close to €4m over the past five years or so, and the ratio of non-exchequer to exchequer income is perhaps 3:1. That work has typically provided an overhead to the University (maybe 20%), and as an economist the main spend is on people – supporting PhD students, postdoctoral researcher and so on. These folks (maybe numbering 50 or so) have jobs, salaries, pay taxes and so on…; and they produce great research. That is repeated for the researchers associated with the Institute – so much so that in certain fields the UCD Geary Institute is right at the top of the academic pile (in Economics of Education we are top 20 in the world). My hope is that this is precisely the output that is expected by Government and the Higher Education Authority (HEA) – success in securing funding largely from non-exchequer sources, and turning that input into very strong output that is internationally recognised.

To sum up the research ‘business model’ which is at the heart of Government (current and prospective) policy – we source the funding from competitions (from both industry and other sources – EU, SFI philanthropy etc etc), commit to a budget and a workplan, recruit the right staff, and get on with the job.

Our ability to do this is about to take a major whack.

The ECF is being revised, so we are now seeing two critical and monumentally destructive extensions of the policy. Firstly, the ECF is being extended to include all prospective hiring including research grant funded appointments – all appointments are paused until the HEA approve their progression. Secondly, we must start at the bottom of the appropriate scale, and the scale is lower for new entrants by 10 per cent in line with Budget 2011 recommendations for new recruits into the public sector.

This means we are stalled in getting projects off the blocks that have been secured, and with great embarrassment find ourselves having to return to funders to explain this. I can think of no other example globally where this sort of centralized approval process has been enforced on externally funded appointments, so explaining this is a tough call.

Moreover, the bottom line is that we are being asked to make offers of circa €20k for postdoctoral candidates which (a) will be impossible to find – new economists are being hired by US schools at close to six figures now and we are already uncompetitive in that pool; and (b) is something close to half or even 30 per cent what is typically budgeted for in a project grant application which means that money – often inward flows to Ireland – is being returned to the funder.

Within the Geary Institute, to take one example, we are now looking at returning funding to the EU Commission sourced under competitive research competitions as we cannot get the project started and will be in breach of contract soon. We have a second – worth well into seven figures – which will not even come to final contract if we have to operate under these terms. And I can point to a third project that was just about to hire four young researchers, where we are going to have to cancel the plan and revert to the funder to say that we cannot continue the project as planned.

Repeated across the institutions, I suspect there is a sizable amount of research funding – and new jobs – which are immediately under threat.  The reputational damage is multiples of that.   The exchequer loss potentially is enormous.

I think the solution here is simple – we should immediately relax the constraints for funded research positions, allow the lead researchers to go to the market and hire the best people we can fund at competitive salaries, and get these people living, working, producing outputs and paying taxes. If HEA want to have assurances around due process, we can give that.   But – and this is not hype – you can throw the whole SSTI and associated strategies in the bin if these constraints are not lifted.


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15 Comments on “‘Employment control’ and the destruction of academic innovation (Colm Harmon)”

  1. jfryar Says:

    I admit its been a few years since I lived in Ireland but when did the HEA have these ‘powers’ conferred?

    • Jilly Says:

      A damned fine question, jfryar. The short answer is that they haven’t had these powers conferred. But the Departments of Education and Finance have collectively decided that the HEA is to be the mechanism by which their interventions into how universities spend their funding is to be managed. The threat with which this is enforced is unless these interventions are complied with, massive financial penalties will be imposed on the universities through extra cuts to their block funding.

      This is in itself a flagrant breach of the 1997 Universities Act, which gives universities autonomy in how they allocate their block funding. So what’s really interesting here is why the HEA has (quite unquestioningly) agreed to play the role of enforcer of interventions which are clearly illegal. Aside from the legal issues involved, it’s a complete derogation of the HEA’s stated mission, which is to act on behalf of universities.

      I would suggest therefore that some close analysis of the current HEA administration, as well as the mechanisms by which it is appointed, is called for. Unfortunately no journalist appears interested in doing this.

    • As Jilly has already suggested, the basis of the HEA’s jurisdiction in enforcing the ECF is far from clear. However, when some universities indicated that they might not be prepared to apply the ECF, it was suggested that the response would be a withdrawal of funds via the recurrent grant. As it happens, that too would be outside the HEA’s powers under law. But if a legal challenge were to be initiated, the fear is that the government would step in and amend the Universities Act, essentially removing all university autonomy. Of course that may happen yet anyway.

      • Jilly Says:

        I’ve been hearing the argument that “if a legal challenge were to be initiated, the fear is that the government would step in and amend the Universities Act, essentially removing all university autonomy” from senior figures in universities for a couple of years now, ever since the government began breaching the terms of the current act.

        My question is, at this stage what do the universities have to lose? The government is effectively rewriting the Universities Act right now, without the bother of going to the Dail in order to do it. And by now, pretty much every ‘nightmare scenario’ of a potential rewrite of the Act is already being actively promoted or indeed enacted. So could the IUA or some similar body PLEASE challenge the legality of the government’s actions?

  2. […] Colm Harmon has a nice little piece on some (possibly) unintended consequences of current government higher education policy here. […]

  3. Patrick Paul Walsh Says:

    UCD made a big mistake bringing their pension funds into a bankrupt state. This has the implication that all UCD staff come under employment control. Even researchers that are non-exchequer funded cannot be hired. This is very serious. Geary is able to win top EU grants and we cannot hire research staff, fund Ph.D.s and admin. Even the local economy around UCD is losing out.
    Universities have to understand that by mid 2012 the Irish Government is likely to default. Do the Universities have a plan to assert autonomy when all contracts are off with the state? What is to be done with fees, non-exchequer research income, quangos in the HE sector, pensions and, finally, indirect costs inside HEIs (Indirect costs inside Universities that are greater than 50 per cent)? We have two years to work this out or end up with vestigial research institutes and quangos across the third level sector which will make ghost housing estates look pretty.

  4. Mark Dowling Says:

    Hmmm… are they trying to replicate the massively successful hospital model where you have a hobbled State entity and a co-located “private” entity which can hire as it pleases, and rents its employees to (UCD, in this case) as Visiting Fellows or something?

  5. smackovsky Says:

    if the HEA want to micro manage academic affairs of grads and postdocs, then the govt should fund PhDs and postdocs on proper public service salaries with full entitlements to benchmarking etc..ha ha ha. The new business model for universities is to become ‘patent generating’ entities, where most of the work is done by PhD’s earning less than minimum wage, that’s another issue.

    with thse bizzare hiring rules, the absolute worst outcome is that academics, having won EU collaborative research funding, eg FP7, have to say ‘sorry lads, we cant hire people to do the work and we have to withdraw from part of the project”. In academia, where reputation is everything, this makes the academic, UCD (TCD, DCU etc) and Ireland look like a bunch of muppets!

  6. Al Says:

    We await the aftermath of the election.
    Hopefully all these things will be solved.

  7. doug Says:

    1. What happens when you hire a researcher, they eventually get a CID, the funding runs out, and the State gets lumbered having to pay their salary for the next 36 years, and their pension?

    2. Congrats on having a high non-exchequer element to your funding. But the fact remains that 80% of 3rd level R&D income comes from public funds. In fact if you strip out EU money (which comes from our taxes too), r&d income is a pittance in Ireland. If universities wish to be autonmous then they are going to have to engage in real self-funding initiatives rather than regarding the recurrent cheque they get from the HEA as somehow profoundly different from the PTRLI one.

    • Colm Harmon Says:


      1. CID issue is a separate point. Researchers don’t ‘eventually’ get a CID – the ones I have hired have mainly gone on under their own steam to get terrific jobs in academia (mainly overseas). UCD, in line with many other institutions, have developed pathways for research careers which deals with CID eligibility issues. With objective grounds for a fixed contract which specialized research programmes in my field (economics) create, CID point is minimal. But your comment may indeed reflect part of the concern underpinning this policy and that is something we need to deal with.

      2. Most public research income comes from someones taxes….the point is that Ireland takes out far more then it puts in (to take EU funding as an example). The latest grant we secured actually comes from US taxpayers…the US National Institute of Health! But fair point and I would agree with you that we need more success in self-funding of a ‘pure’ non-exchequer basis. It is important that such success does not lead to a tax on the HEA income though…which I believe is possibly the case now.

      I also agree that PRTLI is, however you cut it, taxpayer investment and there has perhaps not been as deep an evaluation of that spend as I (as an economist) would like. My own exercise at Geary shows that we have raised €3 (non exchequer – of which €1.50 is PURE non exchequer as you might define it in excluding EU income) for every €1 PRTLI. Given that 80% of our spend is on salary we have paid back the PRTLI in tax and PRSI. This, of course, is purely looking at the funding – an input. I don’t want to lose sight of what this money is used for. The number of academic publications has doubled, and our external ranking (referred to above) is top 5% globally based solely on this output. If this can be done, with low direct exchequer and large non-exchequer competitive support, than everyone is a winner it seems.

      To give a more ‘micro’ example the latest grant (perhaps threatened now) is (a) 100% non-exchequer; (b) recruits 4 researchers/phd students; (c) meets institutional overheads and (d) makes a contribution for my research input so in effect subsidises my salary. To threaten the ability of academics to do this is very short sighted.

  8. […] ‘Employment control’ and the destruction of academic innovation (Colm Harmon) Spread the word: […]

  9. […] prof running for TCD provost) and the University Diary of Ferdinand von Prondzynski, and finally Prof. Colm Harmon. The fulltext of the ECF […]

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