Academic employment uncontrolled

Regular readers of this blog will already be familiar with an Irish government programme applying to higher education called the ‘Employment Control Framework’. A new chapter may be about to open with regard to this particular idiocy,  and so I feel I should say just a few more words about it.

First, a short summary of what this is all about. When in 2008 the Irish economy began to run into serious difficulties, the government imposed a recruitment and promotions moratorium in the public service. At first it was said that this was to apply to the higher education institutions also, but when the universities pointed out that it was incompatible with various provisions in the Universities Act 1997 establishing university autonomy they were told that a special. slightly more flexible scheme would be worked out for them. To cut a long story short, after various drafts had been circulated and some fairly heated negotiations had taken place, the ‘Employment Control Framework’ was born.

The ECF did two things. First, it imposed a staffing reduction target on the institutions, requiring them to reduce the number of those in employment (and separately, also pay costs) by 6 per cent between December 2008 and December 2010. Secondly, it prohibited all promotions and pay increases. In addition, the framework imposed restrictions on appointments even where the savings targets had been met. It did exclude posts from the restrictions where they were not funded by public money, or temporary posts funded by research grants.

In the event, the targets were met by the universities within the timescale. However, this has not been without consequences. In the absence of any redundancy framework, staffing reductions can only be made where vacancies occur. Such vacancies are, by definition, not strategic, so that staffing cuts have been taking place in areas where the universities may not be able to afford them. Secondly, the cuts have in particular applied to staff on fixed term contracts, for obvious reasons, thereby depriving institutions of younger colleagues. As academic employment is highly specialised and transfers within institutions are almost always not realistic, this has led to some areas of strategic importance becoming very vulnerable. Irish universities already had a very unfavourable student-to-staff ratios, and these have been further damaged by the framework.

This time last year the assumption was that the ECF would terminate in December 2010. In fact, the sector still does not know for sure what will happen next, but the signs are that the framework will continue, and may even be extended to posts not funded by public money. Whether this means that current staff numbers will be maintained at the December 2010 levels, or whether further reductions will be applied, is something we don’t know. But here are some of the implications.

• First, staff levels are now pretty much at the limits of sustainability. Further reductions will call the viability of some programmes into question.
• Secondly, the prohibition of promotions has generated a major morale issue, but also created operational problems as senior staff retire but cannot be replaced at that level, with implications for devolved leadership.
• Thirdly, if externally funded posts are to be included universities will be unable to accept contracts and projects that will generate non-exchequer funded revenues, as Professor Colm Harmon has argued recently on this site – which would be crazy.

But most importantly of all, the ‘Employment Control Framework’ is a bureaucrat’s dream but is operationally useless.  Universities accept of course that they must live within their means, and accept that they cannot escape the general cost saving imperative at this time. But how they spend their money must be a matter for them, and the micro-management of their staffing decisions is totally incompatible with the statutory framework for higher education. By applying the ECF the state does not save any money whatsoever, it merely removes independence. In fact, the ECF is actually preventing universities from diversifying their revenues and is punishing initiative.

As the government and the Higher Education Authority consider what should happen over the period ahead, they must understand the completely unnecessary damage which the ‘Employment Control Framework’ is inflicting on the universities and colleges. They must be weaned off the idea that operational controls somehow create better value. This crazy framework must be brought to an end.

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2 Comments on “Academic employment uncontrolled”

  1. Dave Says:

    I am delighted to say that in Scotland we have quite the opposite…I think. Institutions able to make their own decisions, within their own strategic priorities, but having to achieve financial outcomes that are deliverable through locally decided efficiency and effectiveness plans, cost reduction, new income generation or, more likely, a blend of all of this. Never ever forget effectiveness or risk losing the paying ‘customer’for the sake of cost reduction.

    Empowering people to respond to challenges and enabling them to find solutions which they can buy into is always more effective than ‘top down’ imposition…provided people will accept the responsibility and accountability that goes with it and, regretfully, that is not always the case.

    A well respected ex colleague of mine once said that HE was the worst of all sectors for ‘active accountability’ or lack of it. It’s improving of course but still a long way to go.

  2. Ros Says:

    I have just spent 20 minutes trying to explain the ECF to my local Fine Gael candidate. I had to do the same thing last week with our Labour candidate. Neither of them had heard about it before. Does this indicate where the plight of our third level institutions come on the radar with those who will probably be in government this time next week. They weren’t even aware that the HE grant had already been cut. Perhaps I’m just unlucky with the candidates in my area!

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