Posted tagged ‘academic staff’

Academic employment uncontrolled

February 24, 2011

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.

Silliness in Irish universities?

November 30, 2009

My goodness, a symposium organised by the Royal Irish Academy recently on the standing of academics in the public sphere seems to have turned into a right old whinge-fest. A report on the event and the contributions made was carried in the Irish Times, and as far as I can tell every one of them used the occasion to moan about how little they were listened to by the general public, the politicians and the great and the good. And I wouldn’t mind, except that virtually all of those mentioned are hardly ever out of the media and are constantly quoted; they included UCD professors Declan Kiberd and Tom Garvin, TCD economist Brian Lucey, QUB’s Liam O’Dowd, ESRI chief Frances Ruane, and NUI Galway’s Donncha O’Connell.

And what sort of things were said? That Irish intellectuals were ‘despised, ignored and denigrated’; that modern universities were run (badly, I think was the implication) in such a way that there was a major growth of ‘silliness’; that academics were ‘failed by the politicians’; that there was an ‘an absence of a strong tradition of media engagement by academics in Ireland over the past 20 years’; that universities were becoming the R&D wing of the state; and more in a similar vein.

Where does all this come from? A quick glance at the opinion pages of Irish newspapers tells you very quickly that they are disproportionately given over to the analysis and recommendations of Irish academics, usually from Ireland but occasionally from the Irish academic diaspora. These contributions cover all shades of academic opinion, but probably with a majority coming from the particular perspectives that were prominent at this symposium. Academics make regular appearances before Oireachtas committees. They are frequently talking to camera during news and current affairs programmes on television. They chair or sit on lots of public committees. Actually, I know of no country where academic opinions are as prominently visible as in Ireland. For heaven’s sake, even I have a newspaper column. Not to mention blogs.

All of this is of course a good thing, and it is right that academic opinions should be heard in relation to matters on which they are expert. It does not necessarily mean that their recommendations must always be followed, but they should get some space. And they do. In spades.

So why all this complaining? What brought on all this hyperventilating? I suspect it is to do with the current state of anxiety about the future of the academy and the ability of universities to maintain a status of autonomy, in a disinterested relationship with key stakeholders. And those fears and anxieties have some substance and need to be addressed, while at the same time we need to look again at how and whether universities should adapt to a changing environment and different external expectations. But they will receive more thoughtful attention if we don’t distort the picture of how academic opinions are received at this time. I doubt, frankly, whether the report of this meeting will do much to advance the cause of the academic community.

Under-performance in universities

September 11, 2008

In the course of this Thursday I attended several meetings involving prominent people from government and industry. A recurring theme of the discussions was under-performance in the university sector, and it became clear that some of those present had strong views about this. It was felt that lecturers had only a few contact hours with students per week, and not much else to do, and that they often did not pay significant attention to student needs. They also assumed or believed that most academic staff disappear for months during the summer to enjoy extended holidays.

Not many academics would recognise this description, and most would be offended by it. But on the other hand we need to be aware of the fact that what I heard is a widely-shared perception in the outside world, and this needs to worry us, not least because it militates against significant support for universities when it comes to debates about funding and resourcing.

Academic life is not what it once was. It may indeed be true that, a few decades ago, someone taking up an academic career could expect very significant personal autonomy in their work, and a workload that would not be excessively taxing. Those who did no research of any significant volume – and that would have been a large majority – might indeed have expected to take much of the summer off. In short, it was not an uncomfortable life for many.

Those days are long gone. Academic life is now high pressure. Universities expect faculty to have a challenging workload in their teaching, and to be available to students at regular times for consultation and advice; but they also expect them to further their research and to have regular publications as a result, in high quality journals or published by renowned publishers. It would be rare now for an academic to take a summer holiday of more than three weeks.

But if we are honest, we would also have to admit that in higher education – as in most professions – there is a small number of people who do not perform to those standards, and we must expect that as part of the movement to increase university accountability for the expenditure of public money more questions will be asked about this. It will also be expected that we have ways of managing those (we hope rare) cases of visible under-performance.

If we are to attract support, both from politicians and other stakeholders, we need to take this agenda seriously. But we also need to be strong in defence of the dedication and commitment of the overwhelming majority of academic staff, who now work in what is often a stressful environment and who have managed to maintain and enhance the quality of our system.