Posted tagged ‘’employment control framework’’

Irish higher education: employment control moderated

June 21, 2011

Without much noise, the Irish Minister for Education and Skills, Ruairi Quinn TD, with the agreement of the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Brendan Howlin TD, has introduced some fundamental changes to the not-much-loved ’employment control framework’. Under the revised framework, universities will still  have what the document calls a ‘ceiling’ for posts funded by the recurrent grant, but beneath that ceiling institutions will now be able to act independently. Furthermore, they will be allowed to recruit to permanent posts, which is a particularly important change; under the original framework academic career structures had been seriously undermined.

Posts funded from other sources (including research grants and contracts) can also be filled, and now without authorisation and without any ceiling; but only on a fixed term basis and with full cost recovery.

Of further significance is the fact that promotions, within numerical limitations, will now also be possible again.

The ’employment control framework’ in its original form was doing very serious damage to Irish higher education. It undermined institutional autonomy, it destroyed career progression, it made it difficult and occasionally impossible to organise large scale research projects, it compromised the ability of institutions to plan teaching programmes; in short, it was a disaster. The new revised framework is still not entirely unproblematical, but most of the objectionable aspects of the original have now been removed. This is a welcome development for the higher education system.

Ireland: no news is bad news?

May 13, 2011

Three days ago the Irish government launched its jobs initiative. In the document the government stated that, on the following day (i.e. Wednesday, May 11), the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform would announce a relaxing of the requirements of the so-called ’employment control framework’. This is now Friday, May 13, and no such announcement has taken place; or if it has, it has been done in secret.

The ’employment control framework’ has had a more negative and destructive effect on Irish higher education than almost any other recent government measure, and it is important that the new administration shows its awareness of the damage it is causing by moving fast to reform or (preferably) remove it. The failure to follow through on what was promised earlier in the week is not encouraging.

It is my impression that the new Minister for Education and Skills, Ruairi Quinn TD, means to be supportive and constructive in his role. He should push his colleagues in government to move swiftly to kill this totally unnecessary and damaging regulatory scheme.

The ’employment control framework’: change afoot?

May 11, 2011

The following statement was contained in yesterday’s announcement by the Irish government on its ‘jobs initiative’.

Third Level Education

The Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform is announcing tomorrow a relaxation of the numbers ceiling applying to non-Exchequer funded posts in the Higher Education sector, in order to further facilitate the maximum possible employment creation potential of that sector, while also encouraging institutions to seek to diversify their sources of funding away from the Exchequer.
It is envisaged that similar type arrangements will also apply to contract posts involved in research activity in non-commercial State agencies.

This suggests that some of the more ludicrous aspects of the ’employment control framework;’ will now be abandoned. We await more information.

Ireland: so what *has* happened to the ’employment control framework’?

April 28, 2011

After the anger generated in the Irish university community over the second phase of the government’s ’employment control framework’ (under which staff recruitment and promotions in higher education are heavily restricted by the state), it might be asked what has happened to the whole thing. There had been some hints from the new Minister for Education, Ruairi Quinn TD, that there might be a re-think, but since then there has been only silence. We do not know for sure whether there have been talks between the Irish Universities Association and the government, but we must assume that this is so.

But whether the government might be having second thoughts is far from clear. Yesterday the Minister, addressing the annual conference of the Teachers’ Union of Ireland, ‘firmly ruled out lifting the public service moratorium on filling promotional posts in schools, such as those of assistant principals and year heads.’ This is a reference to the related restrictions that apply to the public service more generally; but the Minister’s unwillingness to allow any flexibility in this scheme does not suggest an easy solution for higher education will be possible.

And that, I believe, would be a major mistake, and would undermine the capacity of universities to contribute to new economic growth. It is important to keep up the pressure in this matter.

The onward march – for now – of the ’employment control framework’

March 25, 2011

In Ireland the Higher Education Authority has now formally published the new version of the ’employment control framework’ on its website, and has also issued a set of explanations and statements which produce a very benign interpretation of the terms of the ECF. For example, the statement suggests that promotions are not prohibited by the ECF provided the distribution of junior and senior posts does not change from a December 2010 baseline. The latter statement is welcome, though it would have to be said that it directly contradicts a clear statement in the ECF itself – that there can be no promotions. The reference to the distribution of grades in the ECF applies not to promotions but to the filling of vacancies (see pages 6-7 of the ECF).

The HEA also says in the statement that authorisation will not be required for any appointments; again this is clearly contradicted in the ECF itself (see e.g. first paragraph of section 8 of the ECF).

It is no doubt welcome that the HEA (which cannot in any case be blamed for the ECF) is proposing to apply a reasonable interpretation of the framework. But in the end that will be subject to government instructions and pressures. It seems to me that the position has not changed: the ECF must be revoked.

The legal route to terminating the ’employment control framework’?

March 23, 2011

Readers of this blog will by now be well familiar with the Irish ’employment control framework’, the state-imposed mechanism for restricting the capacity of universities to hire and promote staff, even within budget. Following the publication of the new framework, the influential Trinity College Dublin law professor Eoin O’Dell published a compelling legal analysis in his blog pointing to the various flaws in the way in which the framework was adopted, and in the proposed enforcement of it.

Based on this analysis, TCD Provost candidate Colm Kearney has indicated that, if elected to the post, he would move immediately to restrain the implementation of the ECF by seeking a court injunction. I can see the attraction, at least in principle, of this approach, but I would not myself advocate it immediately, because winning any such litigation may prompt a political backlash with further and more restrictive legislation following it. In any case, litigation in Ireland is notoriously costly and often not exactly speedy. I would prefer the continuation of a strong and united front of people across higher education attacking the framework; I believe there is a good chance that this campaign will succeed and that the ECF will be revoked.

Dealing with the Employment Control Framework ‘debacle’

March 18, 2011

The degree of misjudgment evident in the ’employment control framework’ as issued to the Irish universities has now also been revealed in a leaked internal memorandum in the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Innovation, published today in the Irish Times. The memo was written by Martin Shanagher, Assistant Secretary in the Department. It refers to the ‘debacle with the ECF’ and points out the various flaws in the framework and the errors made in the process of drafting and communicating it. The writer remarks that ‘much needs to be learned about how to conduct our affairs’.

Martin Shanagher heads the Science, Technology and Intellectual Property Division in the 
Department and has been closely involved with the government’s science research agenda. The views he expresses in the leaked memo focus not unnaturally on the damage the ECF may inflict on that agenda, by demotivating the contributors to Ireland’s research efforts, making it difficult for them to staff the projects and adding unnecessary costs. He is also concerned that his Department was not properly consulted or informed about the new ECF, despite the obvious impact on the Department’s programmes.

From all this it is clear that the ECF is not only a totally unnecessary and also very damaging assault on higher education, it is also the product of uncoordinated planning and some alarming ignorance of the implications of what was being announced.

It may however be worth saying that what is wrong with the ECF is not that there are some flaws with the framework. The whole idea is fundamentally misguided and critically undermines the national quest to emerge from the recession. This mad scheme cannot be tweaked or corrected; it must be reversed entirely.

‘Employment control framework’: the impact of public anger?

March 16, 2011

It is probably true to say that the level of dismay and anger occasioned by the new ’employment control framework’ in Ireland has taken the authorities by surprise. Apart from what has been written in this blog, there has been strong criticism by at least two candidates (Colm Kearney and Des Fitzgerald) for the post of Provost of TCD, by University of Limerick economist Stephen Kinsella, by NUI Galway lecturer and Seanad candidate Donncha O’Connell, in an Irish Times editorial, and on 9thlevelireland. To demonstrate the level of concern felt, there is also a Twitter hashtag, #ecf11, where the comments on the ECF have been uniformly negative.

In the light of this strength of feeling, the Higher Education Authority has now commented, and the gist of the response is that the intentions underlying the ECF and its impact have been exaggerated. So the HEA is quoted in the Irish Times as saying:

‘Overall the role of the HEA is one of oversight, not control and it is the intention of the HEA to work with the sector to ensure that the objectives of the Government can be met in the most efficient way. The intention is to provide continuing recruitment and promotion freedom to the institutions in the context of the wider public service moratorium.’

The statement also seeks to reassure the sector by saying that HEA approval will not be required in all circumstances, that fully funded research posts will not be affected, and that there is no intention of fining institutions for not adhering to the ECF terms. While this may reflect the HEA’s state of mind, it is not what is said in the ECF itself. So for example, section 13 states that ‘the allocation of Exchequer funding will be conditional on adherence to the terms of this Framework’. Furthermore, the claim by the HEA that there will be no fines is totally at odds with the Authority’s reported threat last month to impose ‘massive fines’ on TCD for breaking the ECF in relation to staff promotions.

However, the HEA response indicates that the force of the public reaction to the ECF has had an impact. The approach of the Irish Universities Association has (we must assume) been to work behind the scenes to address the issues raised by the new ECF, but sometimes proposals can have such a serious effect that a more public opposition is called for. The ECF as communicated has the capacity to destroy Ireland’s higher education system. Strong resistance must continue until it has been withdrawn. It is not just that some of the details of the policy are oppressive: the whole idea (even in its first incarnation) is totally incompatible with a modern, innovative and autonomous university system.  There is much at stake.

Developing university careers

March 15, 2011

In the context of the discussions over the past day or two on Ireland’s truly crazy ’employment control framework’, I received an email from someone who described himself as a ‘concerned citizen’ and who suggested that this was not the time for university employees to seek promotion. People all over the country, he pointed out, were being asked to make sacrifices, and it was not unreasonable in that context for academics to be asked to delay further career progression for a short time while the economy recovered. Also, he added, it was his experience that universities used promotions processes to incentivise research at the expense of good teaching; everyone knew, he suggested, that only high value research performance counted for promotion, and as a result academics were encouraged to neglect teaching and focus on getting their work published. For that reason, he concluded, a promotions moratorium might actually help to re-balance academic activities and allow the students to ‘re-emerge’ as important subjects of a lecturer’s work.

I have not yet responded to this email, as I want to give proper consideration to the issues my correspondent has raised – and here I am inviting comments from readers of this blog that may help me in the task. In the meantime, these are my own reflections.

First, the ECF context. Whether it is a good or a bad idea for staff to seek or to be offered promotion during the recession is a debatable issue; but my argument with the ECF is that while the government is free to determine what funding it is able to provide to the institutions, it is the universities’ role as autonomous institutions to decide how that money should be spent, staying within their means. Higher education institutions are under unprecedented pressures right now, as funding falls but student numbers are pushed up, and they must individually make judgements about how they can most effectively manage this situation in a way calculated to produce the best teaching and research at this time. Motivating staff is a vital need right now, and so one might conclude that offering some career progression is important enough to justify a small amount of spending (university promotions are not individually expensive, as a rule). It may require less spending on other matters, but that is a choice for the university to make in the light of its circumstances. As we now know that the ECF will last for at least six years in total, that is a very long time not to have any promotions, and by the end of the period some universities may find that they no longer have sufficient numbers of senior staff to ensure that key aspects of the work gets done.

The question of how promotions criteria should be identified and evaluated is an important one. It is not totally unfair to suggest, as my correspondent did, that research tends to trump other aspects of the job when it come to career progression, particularly at the most senior levels. Sometimes it is suggested that this is because research output is easier to measure than other quality indicators and that this has resulted in it being used as the primary yardstick. On the other hand, it could equally be said that academic excellence is reflected in the quality of scholarship, and that research best expresses this. Even universities that have decided to recognise and reward teaching quality often find that this is hard to do objectively. And yet it is becoming increasingly hard to defend promotions that seem to disregard the effort a lecturer makes to provide an excellent learning experience for his or her students.

In any case, while measuring teaching excellence may be tricky, it is by no means impossible, and some writers have suggested an interesting combination of assessment tools.

However, for this or any method of evaluating the criteria to be used for promotions to be effective it needs to enjoy the confidence of those affected, and more than anything else this means that there must be clear guidelines for promotion and a transparent application of the criteria to be used. Many universities are now working on such career development frameworks, and it should be possible to share quite a bit of good practice.

However, the key message in all of this is that promotions are a vital way of motivating staff, but they also provide an opportunity to encourage desirable working practices and goals. They are a highly significant tool in managing strategy. To suggest that they should be abandoned for the medium term would serve to undermine both a wider sense of fairness and equity and the capacity of universities to support the effort for economic recovery. In this as in other contexts, the ’employment control framework’ makes no sense.

Ireland’s ’employment control framework’: a Fine Gael perspective

March 14, 2011

In July 2009, not long after the ’employment control framework’ was put in place, I interviewed the then Fine Gael education spokesperson, Brian Hayes TD, for this blog. One of the questions I asked him was in relation to the ECF, and his answer is reproduced below. While Brian Hayes is no longer responsible for education, he is now a Minister of State in the Department of Finance and his views may still represent a Fine Gael perspective; at any rate, I hope they do.

I am following up the issue of the ECF with all political parties represented in Dáil Éireann in order to see whether some momentum can be established in the quest to have it removed. I shall report on my progress (if any) in due course.

Here is the extract from the interview with Brian Hayes.

FvP: Can I just turn now to the employment control framework, under which universities and other institutions are in future to be prevented from making recruitment and selection decisions where there are vacancies, except in very rare circumstances, and in any case never without the consent of the government.  What is your general view of this, and do you agree with that it’s a good way to go?

BH: No, it’s utterly daft, and I’m on the record as saying so, and I’ve raised it in the Dail and with the Minister. It cannot make sense that we are asking large administration systems like universities in particular not to recruit additional people in areas where, for instance, there is future employment or commercial potential.  I know many colleges will have international students coming into courses next year, and these will be paying full fees and will increasingly represent a larger part of the student body.  With the proposed Stalinist approach to recruitment universities would not be able to staff the programmes taken by these students.  My simple solution to this: we would ask the universities and institutions to live within their budgets. We give them a budget, and it is up to them to determine how that budget is spent. To introduce some kind of Stalinist system whereby every new appointment must be sanctioned by the HEA and ultimately by the Department of Finance is daft, and as I said I think a solution has to be found around giving financial autonomy to the universities, in particular asking them to determine what are their priorities. If that leads them to reduce staffing in one area and increasing jobs in another, that is up to them ultimately.