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.

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20 Comments on “Irish higher education: exercising crazy Soviet-style state control”

  1. Colm Harmon Says:

    Shocking and totally fails any cost-benefit test you might like to try.

    Signed literally the morning Lenihan left office while Enda in the Park. If anyone has direct line to Minister Quinn, Noonan, Howlin – use it. This can be dealt with in the stroke of a pen.

    • Mike Lyons Says:

      Colm I agree totally. We need to engage constructively with the new Government to find another and better way to control numbers in Universities without killing innovation and research.

  2. Dan Says:

    Stunning – there go all my funded research projects for 2011 – and let the word go out internationally, the Republic of Ireland’s Universities are closed: please remove us from your contacts lists.

  3. Mike Lyons Says:

    The ECF 11 is being penny wise and pound foolish. Our new government must look very carefully at this and find another way of proceeding, otherwise any hope of stimulating growth, innovation and high quality jobs via Irish research is dead in the water.

  4. Patrick Says:

    Good article and seems quite clear; but what are justifications of the government proponents? What is the other side of the coin? Obviously someone thinks it is a good idea, who and why?

    • When the ECF was first introduced I asked the then Secretary General of the Department of Finance to explain why they thought this was a good idea. His answer was interesting: it was because they needed to control spending in the HSE, and if universities were given a free hand it would undermine recruitment controls in the health service. That was the reason!

  5. Vincent Says:

    To a certain extent I believe all those in receipt of a government Vote are in cloud cuckoo land. If I were you I’d be planning for an across the board cut of about 40% in income you get from the State.
    It’s then about how you implement the new situation. For lets be honest here, if Wisconsin is anything to go by, the outlet of State Universities will halt. Thereby causing the the picture of salary even at a 40% reduction from to-day will look very nice indeed.
    Sorry to be such a downer on a sunny Sunday.

  6. Brian Lucey Says:

    I personally would think that a hard budget cap and NO micromanagerialism of this sort would be preferable. We are far from cloud cuckoo land. We are living with the reality of cuts every day; TCD produces 50% more graduates with 2/3 of the per graduate income than comparable universites. And we will take the next 15-20% cuts and work them.
    What we cannot do is to dance to the tune of some demented bureaucrat when we wish to apply for a grant. FFS what nonsense.

    • Vincent Says:

      The acceptance of the cash is up to you. You, the Statutory Universities have a darn sight more independence in reality and far beyond that seated in academic freedoms. But it’s up to you to use it. You cannot keep whining when the pipers paymaster is broke. Well, decided to use your cash for someone else. So for your own very survival you need to wean yourselves off the exchequer totally. Unless that is you are sending a bill that you can enforce in a court.

      • Al Says:

        Perhaps what we are looking at in the long run is those that can, privatizing and charging fees, rather than be minced under the current process.
        Those that cant continue on under the discipline.

        Will the Govt may achieve its 70% into Third level?

      • Dan Says:

        Vincent, I don’t get the sense that people here are “whining” about the paymaster being broke or the fact of the country being financially banjaxed – we’re not idiots, we read the papers…

        However, when you have already secured national or international funding, and are ready to employ highly educated graduates or are establishing European collaborative research initiatives, then it is somewhat ‘odd’ to be told that you can’t go forward. Our international collaborators will draw their own conclusions about the efficacy and value of Irish university research and teaching, and make their decisions accordingly…

      • Brian Lucey Says:

        If you have been awake the last three years you may have noticed me, and others in teh university sector suggesting some harsh things. The facts are this
        The irish state wants world class third/fourth level education ; it cant pay for it; it wont allow universities to charge for it.
        Now, feel free to suggest a solution…

        As dan says, there are already issues in progress. Have a long hard read of this post here, of Colm Kearney’s and of others. Then come back to us. Or feel free to keep jerking that knee

        • Vincent Says:

          You can charge for it if you want. But then the Vote will be reduced accordingly. However, if presented properly I think that the exchequer would be amenable to paying out the past and current pension liability if any future liability was covered from within. It’s in their interest to accept this idea, equally as much as it’s in the interest of each of the Universities.
          You need actual and active Independence. But at the moment you are caught in the myriad of funding streams which are derived from the various government departments.
          What I’m suggesting is that disestablish yourselves financially.

  7. Brian Lucey Says:
    Colm has a fairly strong statement on this issue.

  8. Perry Share Says:

    Basically this is a means of ensuring that nothing interesting or innovative is going to happen in Irish higher education for the foreseeable future. No sane person is going to seek research or project funding when every post required to actually carry out the work will require permission from the Department of Finance.

    The most likely outcome is that those who are young/unattached enough will decamp to countries where education and research are valued. Those that remain will – given that any type of promotion or progression is now impossible – inevitably adopt satisficing behaviour, doing the minimum that is required to earn their ever-diminishing income.

    A ‘smart economy’ might indeed be on the way, but it will not be coming from the HE sector, which presumably will revert to an elite system for training the professional classes of the future, as it was for most decades of its existence.

    The incoming government now has a clear choice. It can show some courage and commitment and get rid of the ECF, and allow institutions to deploy their budgets intelligently, or it can indicate that it is completely subservient to the faceless mandarins of the Department of Finance and the legacy of Fianna Fail.

    Given the great play that the Labour Party in particular has made of its commitment to education, we will see what this new crowd are made of.

  9. […] derided on Twitter at #ecf11, and it has drawn a chorus of detailed criticism from Des Fitzgerald, Ferdinand von Prondzynski, Colm Kearney, Paul Walsh, and Dermot Frost. For a bunch of academics, the unanimity is […]

  10. Perry Share Says:

    I think it is absolutely imperative that IFUT and the TUI come out with a very strong combined statement on this issue. The whole future of academic work is at stake. Ruari Quinn needs to be made immediately accountable for the actions of the HEA. We don’t want to see a re-run of the ‘nothing to do with me, I’m only the minister’ approach that Mary Harney used with the HSE.

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