Irish higher education: exercising crazy Soviet-style state control
Over recent weeks I published two posts on this site that drew attention to the impact of the Irish government’s attempt to reduce staffing in higher education, the so-called ’employment control framework’ (ECF). The first was written by Professor Colm Harmon, Director of UCD’s Geary Institute, warning about the effect on fully funded research projects; and the second was a more general note on how the framework was undermining academic strategy.
If it was our intention to cause a re-think in official circles leading to the phasing out of the framework, we were totally unsuccessful. The government – meaning in this case the former Fianna Fáil administration, during its final moments in office – has formally told the universities that the ECF is to continue with new terms and conditions, stretching now to the end of 2014. The full text of the new ECF is set out immediately below this post.
The key issues that now face the Irish higher education sector include the following. First, the significant staffing reductions that were effected over the previous two years, from December 2008, are being continued for a further three years. These have had a serious impact on the viability of programmes of study, and the extension of the scheme will make the management of third level programmes all but impossible.
Secondly, the ECF is now being extended to all employment and not just core staffing funded through the Higher Education Authority. In fact, it will now include even non-exchequer funded posts, so that universities cannot escape the framework by raising funds externally. The argument being used to justify this extension is that such posts could create pension liabilities for the state (which overwhelmingly they don’t in practice), despite the fact that the ECF also stipulates that in any permitted appointments such liability must be covered by raising the additional money required.
Thirdly, the ECF now makes any new appointments, even within the framework’s restrictions, conditional on transfers of staff within the institution and between institutions not being possible.
Fourthly, all vacancies that are filled within the terms of the ECF must be on a temporary or fixed term basis. By 2014 this will have been the case for six years, leading to a serious casualisation of academic employment and the erosion of career structures on a very significant scale. Any permanent appointment will require a case-by-case approval by the HEA and will only apply where essential posts cannot otherwise be filled.
Fifthly, the ECF provides that non-compliance will be punished by financial penalties in the allocation of annual grants, something that is specifically prohibited under the Universities Act 1997.
Sixthly, promotions and career development will not be allowed.
Finally, the ECF includes a significant additional bureaucratisation of employment procedures.
But the key issue overall is that the ’employment control framework’ is a frontal assault on university autonomy without any substantive justification. The state is already in a position to determine the amount of public money that an institution may spend and is entitled to demand that each university stays within its budgetary means. The ECF does not in any way improve the exchequer position, but it removes institutional discretion on how to spend money and involves the state and its agencies in micro-managing the colleges. The deployment of staff and the management and facilitation of their careers is the single most important strategic power of any higher education institution, and this has now been almost entirely removed.
The ’employment control framework’ is a crazy and ludicrous scheme, providing no financial benefit to the exchequer, but with the capacity to destroy the competitiveness and strategic innovation of Irish higher education. It is to be hoped that the new government will move quickly to reverse this madness.