The complexities and contradictions of being an Irish academic

If anyone wondered whether there really is a lack of sympathy amongst the wider Irish public for academics and their working practices, the piece of what is described as ‘analysis’ by Eamon Delaney in today’s Sunday Independent should dispel that quickly enough. In fact, as anyone familiar with universities will know, much of what he writes in assessment of today’s Irish higher education institutions is total nonsense, but getting that across is made much more difficult by the fact that what he presents as facts and figures is on the whole correct. Salaries are what he says they are, the universities’ financial positions are as he describes, and what he says has been said has indeed been said (if you can follow that).

The recent campaign, described on this site and elsewhere over the past couple of months, to safeguard academic freedom has to many people (very unfairly) come across as a campaign to protect the special vested interests of an already privileged group, who uniquely are insisting on being exempted from what everyone else is having to endure. The reality is of course different. Academics have taken their pay cuts and have seen their working hours increased dramatically as hordes of new and unfunded students enter the higher education system; and at the same time the demands on them in terms of research have grown also, as colleges try to shore up their positions by winning more funds. While academic pay looks good to many observers, it is being earned by people who have longer and more demanding training than almost anyone else in society, and the top earners in the academic ranks have by now probably lost about 30 per cent of their take home pay, compared with what it was three years ago; and they still have mortgages based on what they once earned.

However, if anyone were to think that what Delaney writes is not what the general population thinks, they should disabuse themselves of that. His comments are wholly typical of what is being said ‘out there’; the idea that Irish academics are a privileged group trying to protect their privileges is taken as fact. So why can a different and more nuanced message not be got across successfully?

There are a number of reasons. But one of the more significant ones is this: nobody speaks to the general public on behalf of universities. Academic staff meeting in the Gresham Hotel and elsewhere seem, as far as the messages ‘getting out’ are concerned, to be chiefly engaged in a campaign of war against their own university managements, rather than, say, government or regulatory bodies. University management and their representatives (in the IUA) on the other hand are, as far as the public can perceive, totally silent, and whatever is done by them is done behind closed doors. The result is that the noise about the Croke Park agreement, far from opening up some sympathy for the academy, is further damning it in the public mind. Colourful attacks by somewhat long-in-the-tooth senior academics on their own institutions and how they are led probably sound good to internal dissenters, but will not enhance academic reputations in the wider world.

As the recent ’employment control framework’ events have shown, the Irish academy is under siege by a set of decision-makers who don’t understand it and who want to turn it into a more familiar type of public service bureaucracy. What these events have also shown is that when the academic community and its leaders work together, public perceptions can be influenced: my prediction is that the ECF will be revoked, and when that happens the remarkably united campaign of the past week or so will have been the critical reason for this. There is a lesson there. All those involved in Irish higher education must work together to present their case, in a united manner, and to do it consistently. There is too much to lose otherwise.

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17 Comments on “The complexities and contradictions of being an Irish academic”


  1. Having worked as an academic in Australia, the UK and Ireland in the past two years what you have said rings very true to me. 

    People forget the 7 years of education, years of working as a postdoc all before breaking into a first lecturing job. I was 32 before I had my first permanent job (and many young academics who read this will think “you were lucky”!) I then gave up a permanent job in Ireland to pursue my career in Australia (on a contract) as career advancement stopped in Ireland a few years ago. These are the difficult decisions most people I know are making. 

    There are of course some very smug self-interested people in both the upper reaches of Irish academia and quangos on high pay scales who are working for their own interests and not their colleagues or our wider society. Thankful in my time in academia I’ve met only a handful.

    However, Irish academics need to be prepared for the shock of “reverse benchmarking”. When colleagues in the UK or Australia ask about academia abroad, salaries invariably come up. Surprise is often the first reaction when the scales in Ireland are mentioned. Currency exchange rates and cost of living make it difficult to compare but they can all measure it against the latest advertisement for job x in city y with cost of living z beyond Dublin. I see a similar (if somewhat distorted) message is getting through to every level of government and society in Ireland. 

    Of course academics have built their lives and futures around a pay rate which is now being quietly eroded on a yearly basis. They have no chance of a promotion, bonus or future increase our friends in other sectors have on the horizon. Any job security argument is a nonsense with Universities and departments across the world looking to shut and a large percentage of academics working on contract anyhow.

    A friend in Dublin put it well, “if they reverse benchmark my salary and revalue my mortgage then I can live with this new reality”. Otherwise, the pain of reverse benchmarking without such consideration will literally break many academics with mortgages. Similar is happening to people in the private sector and I feel a similar argument holds.

    No one likes to take a pay cut but the ECF, slow erosion of pay, no career advancement and myriad of other pains are doing immeasurable damage to academia in Ireland. 

    Aaron

  2. Al Says:

    Ah the Sindo…
    Started with FAS and now moving up the NFQ ladder…
    Could it be considered progression in journalism???

    It is quite a rambling piece, like most of his work…
    But comparing Lecturers with Managers is his main unintelligence.
    Starting point for an Assistant Lecturer is in the upper 30K.
    How this can be compared to top management? It is similar to comparing nurses to consultants..
    Probably his article for next week!

  3. Ernie Ball Says:

    I’ve actually met the author of that hatchet job and I’m frankly shocked. He seems like a reasonable person in real life. But if I meet him again, I’ll tell him he ought to be ashamed of himself. It demonstrates not even the slightest measure of discernment (i.e., the ability to make distinctions) and smacks of pure opportunism. “Sure, this’ll sell to the Sindo.” Were I to use the same tactics he uses, I’d say that this betokens a general lack of intelligence among the journalistic population at large.

    Finally, salary comparisons are, once again, meaningless absent all reference to purchasing power. The market for academics, unlike that for half-wit journalists, is vibrant and international and academics, unlike the average Sindo reader, are not overly impressed by raw salary numbers. Few are in it to get rich, only to be comfortable enough to not have to worry or think too much about how they will be able to live. Ireland is in the course of pricing itself out of this market, not only with the multiple pay cuts, but above all with half-baked rhetoric like this in the national media and parroted by the population at large. What sane foreign academic would ever want to come here? What sane Irish academic would want to stay? Add the ECF and not only will they not want to, they won’t be able to.

    I take no solace in knowing that Eamon Delaney’s children will be among those paying the price.

  4. Ernie Ball Says:

    Oh, and as for this:

    “Academic staff meeting in the Gresham Hotel and elsewhere seem, as far as the messages ‘getting out’ are concerned, to be chiefly engaged in a campaign of war against their own university managements, rather than, say, government or regulatory bodies.”

    Ferdinand, we’d have much preferred it if the university management as represented by the IUA had decided to defend us. They could have had lecturers and researchers as their allies in making the case for the university. That they haven’t done. They have opportunistically used the Croke Park agreement to attack their own staff with a set of proposals that have nothing to do with what’s in the agreement and that . . . wait for it . . . save no money. It’s clear why this is: if you want to save money in third level, you’ve got to look at where the money is wasted. Lecturer salaries are, I believe, only about 25% of third-level expenditure when you include all of the various overheads that universities pay. The ratio of non-academic staff to academic staff at UCD is 1.4 to 1, at TCD it’s 1.55 to 1, at UCC it’s 1.43 to 1 and, across all Irish universities it’s done nothing but rise these last few years. But you’re not going to get turkeys to vote for Christmas and you’re not going to get senior management fat cats to include a look at their own contracts in the Croke Park Provision about such matters, now, are you?

    So it’s a little much (outrageous, really) to complain that somehow we lecturers are “engaged in a campaign of war” against university management. They have picked the bones of the university clean and, in order to divert attention from the millions they have wasted (how many millions to IBEC and the IUA, to take only two examples?) have decided to pick on the soft target of “pampered lecturers.” Never mind that much of this latter idea has gotten into the public’s mind by the inability of the press to draw any distinction between the sins of management and the sins of those on the frontline, so that we’re all held to be on huge six-figure unauthorised contracts (see, for example, the recent hatchet job by Sean Flynn where he lists the highest paid “academics” and never bothers to mention that, to a person, they are all administrators and not working as academics at all).

    I’m sorry, but if there’s somebody you should be blaming for this sorry state of affairs, Ferdinand, it’s your erstwhile fellow IUA members, Hugh Brady foremost among them.

  5. Paul Lee Says:

    As a non-academic but a graduate of third level, I agree in principle with the comments expressed by the author. However, I think the opportunities* to communicate with the public in a non-patronising manner would benefit the universities and academia enormously.

    What academics (like all professional classes) need to appreciate is that, whether based in reality or not, the perception is there of an elitist class. Like most professional groups (my own included- that of architecture), there seems to be a lack of urgency to communicate with a public that accesses information freely (some good, some bad, mostly badly interpreted.) via the web. This reality is more profound than people think.

    On an anecdotal note: I have been trying to introduce a free technology from Google into architectural and engineering schools and at another level to primary-secondary schools. The lack of interest mixed with passive agressive resistance is astounding. I realise that I should not and will not tar everyone with the same brush but its a sad reality that I see institutions cladding themselves with excuses for not delivering the best possible services to their students.

    Having said all of that I still agree in principle with the author.

    *i.e. The Web.

  6. no-name Says:

    What about trying to set the record straight by publishing a piece in next week’s Sunday Independent or any other newspaper?

  7. Ned Costello Says:

    Ferdinand, I have to take issue with you about your statement to the effect that IUA has been doing nothing publicly. Both at the Public Accounts Committee, and more recently at the Education and Skills Committee – see http://debates.oireachtas.ie/EDJ/2010/12/02/00004.asp both I and my colleagues were vocal and public in our explaining and defending what academics do. In the more reasoned environment of the Education committee, what we said was very well received, as the transcript will reflect. However, those who wish to read it will also find the views of the now Minister for Education on the need for change and modernisation in higher education illuminating.

    I’m getting to this reply now because I spent a large part of the weekend working on ECF issues. That work is not made any easier by those who would conflate the PSA and the ECF, as that seems to suggest a mindset that all change is ipso facto bad change.

    As I mentioned before, I am more interested in seeing issues resolved than making declamatory public pronouncements – of which there are sufficient as far as I’m concered.

    • Ernie Ball Says:

      To paraphrase and adapt Obama on his opposition to the second Iraq war: it’s not that we’re opposed to change. It’s that we’re opposed to dumb changes. What sort of changes? Ones that assume that overpaid and ultimately unnecessary central bureaucrats, whether in the HEA or in the University President’s office, know better what lecturers and researchers should be doing than the lecturers and researchers themselves.

      The irony, of course, is that this extreme centralisation and bureaucratisation is occurring in (mediocre, it has to be said) universities at exactly the moment that the business world has recognised the extreme inefficiency of such management models and is moving toward ever more devolved autonomy and low-level decision making not unlike that in the traditional university.

      The fact is: universities don’t need such high bureaucratic overheads. The real work goes on regardless. If the entire senior management team of a place like UCD were to disappear tomorrow, all of the important work would go on without a hitch. But when the bureaucrats are the ones charged with coming up with the “efficiencies” and the “change,” that change isn’t likely to include cutting back the bureaucracy itself, now, is it, Ned? It’s likely to simply ignore or exacerbate the existing problems.

    • Ernie Ball Says:

      For example: Why exactly do we need an IUA, a private company subsidised by the taxpayer to the tune of millions?

  8. Latinum Says:

    Should we not consider a boycott of the ‘Sindo’?
    Think about it, if all academics refused to buy the paper, and it was essentially shunned on campuses across the country – that *would* hurt them in the pocket.
    Maybe it is time for the academy to awaken!

  9. Ned Costello Says:

    Strong views there Ernie Ball, and in your previous posts. You certainly aren’t shy about making fairly firm judgments about the quality of our university management and, indeed, our journalists, collectively.

    Can I be so bold as to presume you’re not the string and guitar manufacturer, so why not contact me directly and, as per my previous post, I’m happy to discuss the IUA with you one to one. All my contact details are on our website. Regards, Ned

    PS Proportionally, Irish Universities have relatively low levels of non academic staff.

    PPS If you actually are “the” Ernie Ball, I’d also be delighted to talk guitars and basses with you. I’ll stick with D’Addario for strings though, thanks.

  10. michael Says:

    Nobody seriously disputes that Irish academics’ salaries are out of line with those of their peers in other countries – even after adjusting for purchasing power. Perhaps I should put it another way – nobody has presented any credible avidence to the contrary.

    To those who are now annoyed about ‘micro-management’ and ‘bureaucratic interference’, there is a simple riposte: This is what happens when you mess up: you lose your autonomy.

    And it’s not that bad: in the private sector, if we mess up our budgets, we go out of business and we all lose our jobs.

    Suck it up lads.


    • But exactly who has ‘messed up’? The Irish universities have been something of a remarkable success story.

    • Ernie Ball Says:

      “Nobody seriously disputes that Irish academics’ salaries are out of line with those of their peers in other countries – even after adjusting for purchasing power.”

      I dispute it (for example here). If you’ve got some evidence for what you claim, feel free to present it here. I’m afraid you’ll find that this is one of those old canards that “everybody knows” and that turn out to be false. Pity that, so often in Ireland, public policy is made on foot of such myths.


      • To be honest, the disparity or otherwise of Irish academic salaries compared with academic pay in other countries doesn’t matter that much to the national discourse on this. What would be much more in people’s minds is academic (and public service) pay compared with the Irish private sector – and this is where it is now being said that Irish academics are over-paid. It’s actually a very hard case to address.

        • Ernie Ball Says:

          No it isn’t hard to address. Unlike virtually every other public sector position (including, ahem, those in university administration, your own move to Scotland notwithstanding), academic positions are filled on a global market. That market determines largely what academics are paid and what kind of salaries various desirable and undesirable locations have to offer in order to attract them.

          So the fact that academics are highly paid relative to the private sector is no more relevant to the question of what academics should be paid than is the fact that footballers are highly paid relative to bellboys.

          Never mind that all these public/private comparisons, including those recently published by the CSO fail to take into account at least two things:

          1) The so-called “pensions levy” which cut our pay more than any other step taken by the last government all the while leaving the headline salary figure as a target for the public to rail at.

          2) The amount of training required for public-sector jobs (most of which are in health and education) relative to private-sector jobs. In some disciplines, it takes 10 years just to get to the point of being able to apply for a job.


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