‘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.