Posted tagged ‘Fine Gael’

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.

A new programme for government in Ireland: the implications for higher education

March 7, 2011

Well, we now know for certain who will form the new Irish government: it will be a Fine Gael/Labour coalition. The two parties confirmed yesterday that their negotiations had been concluded successfully, and they have published their programme for a Government for National Recovery 2011-2016. The version on the Fine Gael website (referenced above) is not as user-friendly as the version published by the Irish Times, as the latter is properly paginated.

The programme begins with a ‘Statement of Common Purpose’, which was presumably intended as a mission statement for the coalition. It is maybe a little high on slightly cheesy rhetoric and some painful mixed metaphors (‘The stroke of a pen, in thousands of polling stations, created this political whirlwind’), and it is overly fond of incomplete sentences and dodgy syntax; but it does set the scene for the more detailed plans that then follow.

For the purposes of this post I want to take a look at what the coalition is saying about higher education. This can be found on page 43 of the document, and the relevant section has the heading ‘Third Level Reform’. Here is the section in full:

‘We will review the recommendations of Hunt report on higher education. A reform of third level will be driven by the need to improve learning outcomes of undergraduate degree students, as well as providing high quality research.

We will initiate a time-limited audit of level 8 qualifications on offer and learning outcomes for graduates of these courses.

We will introduce radical reform in third level institutions to maximise existing funding, in particular reform of academic contracts and will encourage greater specialisation by educational institutions.

We support the relocation of DIT to Grangegorman as resources permit.

We will explore the establishment of a multi campus Technical University in the South East.

We will extend the remit of Ombudsman to third level institutions.

We will merge the existing accreditation authorities; National Qualifications Authority, FETAC and HETAC to increase transparency.’

Leaving aside the ombudsman and the ‘Technical University in the South East’, this represents a promise that the new government will on the whole continue with the higher education policies of the outgoing Fianna Fáil/Greens administration. It could be argued that only one of these statements appears to have any real significance, and it is the one promising ‘radical reform in third level institutions’. This suggests that there will be no new or additional funding, but a continuing bureaucratisation of higher education. The ‘reform of academic contracts’ is likely to mean that the institutions will be forced to include more detailed obligations in contracts of employment. ‘Greater specialisation’ suggests a higher level of centralised control of universities and colleges through funding mechanisms.

I confess that, at first sight, none of this looks very promising to me. There is no sense of understanding of the crisis in higher education, no recognition of the sector’s resourcing needs, and a belief that instead more centralised control can achieve higher standards (for which there is absolutely no empirical evidence).

This lack of engagement with higher education is the more disappointing as the provisions in the programme on primary and secondary education are much better and show a greater understanding of what issues need to be addressed.

There is a separate section on international education (page 13), which states that the ‘objective will be to double number of international students studying in Ireland, particularly targeting students from India, China and the Middle East’ (there is actually an argument for diversifying the system away from over-reliance on these three regions). Whether the target of doubling international student numbers (which has been mentioned previously in Fine Gael documents) makes sense is debatable.

The programme also considers the country’s research agenda (pages 9-10). It intends to establish a ‘National Intellectual Property protocol’ to govern the commercialisation of IP from universities. It is hard to know exactly what this will mean, and so judgement must be suspended for now – though again there is a hint here of state control of individual university policies. If it means instead that there is to be a framework of IP support to enable efficiency and transparency of process it would potentially be a good thing. The coalition appears to intend to continue with the programmes of Science Foundation Ireland, but it seems to believe – mistakenly – that SFI only supports ‘basic research’ now. It intends to establish ‘Technology research Centres’, apparently with the aim of facilitating the commercialisation of university-based research (though it’s possible that this is about something else entirely).

It must be recognised that government programmes are negotiated and written in haste, and it is understandable that not every detail has been worked through in terms of its implications. Nevertheless, this is the programme, and it contains worrying elements, with a recurring theme of greater direct government control of university programmes and policies. We may know more when some of these are explained in more detail by the new ministers. Who will fill the key posts now becomes the key issue.

Let Ireland be open for innovation

March 3, 2011

As the political parties in Ireland sift through the entrails of the general election, and as Fine Gael and the Labour Party discuss a possible programme for government, let them not repeat the mistake of the outgoing Fianna Fáil/Green coalition in rejecting nuclear power and research into genetically modified organisms in their original programme. This presented Ireland as a place in which innovation was not particularly welcome.

There are, I know, valid arguments that can be raised against nuclear power and the distribution of GMOs. But there is no valid argument against doing further work on, researching into or analysing the possible benefits of either. It is time for us to take a mature approach rather than indulge in knee-jerk positions.

New day for Ireland?

February 27, 2011

I am about to go to bed for tonight, and as I do so the current seat count in the Irish general election is Fine Gael 46, Labour 26, Sinn Féin 11, Fianna Fáil 12, Independents and small parties 12. There are still 61 seats to be filled, and right now the predictions made across the media are all consistent and suggest Fine Gael will be by far the largest party, but short of an overall majority, and that a coalition with Labour (which also did well, though not as well as might have been predicted a few months ago) is the most likely outcome. Fianna Fáil will probably return fewer than 20 TDs, representing a catastrophic meltdown of its vote. The Greens have gone; a few years ago someone suggested that their votes would, in the end, be biodegradable, and so it now appears.

The Irish electorate was clearly determined to punish the parties forming the outgoing government, and to do so comprehensively. It is part of the current political narrative, and the future will reveal to what extent this is history or mythology – that an incompetent and corrupt administration, too close to bankers and developers, walked the country into an economic disaster and then sought and agreed an unfair remedy for it in the form of the EU/IMF bail-out. In this narrative other parties were innocent and the people were victims. It is possible that this narrative is not totally correct, but right now there is no mood in the country to question it and sentence is being pronounced accordingly.

I suspect that nothing much is about to change, and the new government will largely continue where the discredited one left off. I also fear that the new Taoiseach will be no better at communicating with the people than the outgoing one. But perhaps the election offers the chance for psychological renewal and for a new determination to go forward and achieve recovery. The country does deserve that.

Party time: Fine Gael

February 16, 2011

It is widely presumed that, after the coming Irish general election, the new government will be led by Fine Gael. It is the only party that has entered a sufficient number of candidates in the election to allow it to govern on its own if the electorate so decides, as no other party will has enough candidates to win a majority even if all of them were elected. Furthermore, the opinion polls are strongly suggesting a very sold performance by the party.

In these circumstances, what the party says in its manifesto matters, and we can expect to see many of its promises become government policy shortly.

So as regards higher education, what are these promises? They are contained in section 9.9 of the document, and this provides an insight into what Fine Gael believes now constitute our priorities. This includes what is, in essence, an adoption of the proposals on funding made in England by Lord Browne’s review: there will be no up-front fees, but graduates will be required to make a ‘contribution’ amounting in total to about a third of the cost of their degree programme.

Secondly, Fine Gael wants the universities to pursue ‘greater pay and non-pay efficiencies in the third level system through greater flexibility in working arrangements, in line with the Croke Park Agreement.’

Thirdly, the party wants more coordination of the sector, and so it promises to ‘give students a better third level education by repositioning our universities and institutes to become world leaders in education through greater collaboration, specialisation and focus in every educational institution.’

Finally, the party is intending to double international student numbers. While no doubt there are several reasons, the manifesto emphasises the potential for ‘maximising the revenue potential of this rapidly growing.’

Over recent years the impression has grown amongst politicians that Ireland’s higher education system is too fragmented and inefficient. Fine Gael has been at the heart of this drive to introduce ‘reform’. While the detailed plans set out in the manifesto are somewhat  vague, they nevertheless paint a picture of system in which government will exercise greater control over institutions and change the nature of the academic employment relationship. Universities will need to engage with the party as a matter of urgency, with a good case.

I have seen the future, but does it work?

February 15, 2011

If we make certain assumptions about the likely composition of the next government in Ireland, we do well to study the manifestos of Fine Gael and Labour. Both are now available.

I shall examine the commitments made in these documents later, but it is worth pointing out that they contain a pattern regarding higher education. Leaving aside for a moment what they say on funding, the key objective of both parties is to bring about a reform of the sector, and in particular the reform of academic contracts and working conditions. It is therefore likely that current discussions around this issue (featured in this blog) will, if anything, step up a gear after the election.

A further more detailed analysis to follow.

A different perspective on February 14: fall in love with Fine Gael?

February 13, 2011

As soon as I can get hold of the education proposals of Fine Gael in the Irish general election campaign I shall review them here, but while waiting for that you may want to consider the party’s novel approach to campaigning, in the form of what must be the cheesiest Valentine’s Day ‘card’ that I have ever seen. Have a look here, but put aside all your normal rational responses first.

Parliamentary matters

January 4, 2011

As far back as I can remember, every so often someone pops up in Irish politics and suggests that the Irish parliament’s upper house, Seanad Éireann (the Senate), should be abolished. Back in the 1980s this was suggested by Fianna Fáil grandee Martin O’Donoghue, more recently it was put forward as a new Fine Gael policy (about which the party front bench apparently knew nothing until they heard it on the radio) by party leader Enda Kenny, and now Fianna Fáil and the Labour Party have also proposed abolition. Pretty much everybody, therefore.

Indeed, it has been suggested that we may have this put to us in a referendum on the same day as the coming general election (abolition would require a constitutional amendment). This would create an interesting situation, in the sense that there would be some confusion as to whether a new Seanad could or should be elected if the electorate has just voted to abolish it, but where in the absence of implementing measures such an election may actually be required.

There are arguments that could made made either way as to whether a bi-cameral legislature is necessary or is (or isn’t) a better way of expressing democracy. In a country such as Ireland where, to be frank, the lower house doesn’t exactly exercise an independent voice, the abolition of the second chamber could raise questions. On the other hand, the current composition of the Seanad (with 11 members appointed by the Taoiseach) is weighted towards government support, so perhaps its survival should depend on fundamental reform. An upper house composed of people other than aspiring or rejected politicians could be an interesting proposition, for example.

But whatever position is taken in this, it should be based on proper analysis and consultation. So far it is difficult to see what is driving the proposals for abolition, other than pseudo-populist instincts and the assumption that it would please an angry electorate to get rid of some political institutions. That is not a good basis for decisions on the nature of our parliamentary structures. Doing all this hastily, to coincide with the March election, is not sensible. Democracy deserves a little more attention than that.

So while I could perhaps be persuaded either way, if this turns up on the March ballot paper and we haven’t had a really informed debate nationally, I shall be voting against the proposal.

Fine Gael: focusing on government (and its impact on HE)

November 8, 2010

Given the continuing speculation about a general election in Ireland during the coming months (and whether that happens will, I suspect, depend mainly on whether the December Budget is passed by the Dáil without too much difficulty, and on how the Donegal by-election goes), it may be timely to start looking at the policies of the parties currently in opposition. As it happens, Fine Gael has just published a policy document entitled Reinventing government: protecting services and getting the economy back on track. This document has some themes running through it: reducing the size of government, abolishing quangos, and devolving decision-making. There are some parallels between the Fine Gael document and current UK government policies, and the general approach is a similar one in many respects.

There are in the Fine Gael policy some references to universities and higher education. First, the party would in government sign ‘public service agreements’ with what it calls ‘public service delivery bodies’, and universities are specified as coming under that heading. These agreements would set out ‘activities, outputs and long-term outcomes’ which would have to be delivered. Secondly, small businesses will be put in a position to ‘shape the research agenda’ of universities. Thirdly, universities will have devolved to them the power to take independent decisions regarding ‘investment, staffing, pay and other employment conditions’. Finally, the party suggests that the Higher Education Authority should be abolished and its functions moved into the Department of Education – except for functions relating to research, which should go to Science Foundation Ireland.

The somewhat (at least to me) grating element of these proposals is that universities are simply considered to be public service agencies; but the devolution of decision-making to enhance autonomy is a positive concept, particularly as this signals a move away from the Employment Control Framework. The reference to the research agenda could mean nothing much in practice, but could be tricky if the party is suggesting that university research should be seen mainly as a device for servicing business needs; but having research supervised by SFI would raise questions about the value (if any) being placed on humanities and social science research.

The Fine Gael document is welcome because it is a contribution to national debate, and some of its content is highly interesting. However, the references to higher education (which seems to be included somewhat in passing, as primary and secondary education get far more attention) suggest that more dialogue between universities and Fine Gael might be helpful, to ensure that the party understands the implications of some of the things it is suggesting, and also the vital importance of higher education in the pursuit of the national interest.

Party time

July 26, 2010

On Saturday I was a guest on Newstalk radio’s Saturday morning show with Brendan O’Brien. One of my fellow guests was someone I had never heard of before until the middle of last week, Leo Armstrong. His claim to fame, and the reason for his presence on air, was that he had organised a meeting (attended by 50, we’re told) to discuss the setting up of a new political party. The news report on the meeting said that several speakers had complained about the political system’s ‘corruption’, ‘cronyism’ and other failings.

I thought that Mr Armstrong, who is 70 years old, was a totally affable man, a somewhat old-fashioned gentleman if that term still means anything. But I absolutely could not fathom why we were discussing his plan, or indeed why his meeting had merited the attendance of an Irish Times journalist and an article the next day. Don’t get me wrong, he is absolutely entitled to explore the potential for a new party, and he is welcome to lead it. But before the rest of us get excited about his chats over a pint in a Kilkenny pub, we would need to see more of his credentials. So far all we know is that he was a serial member of Fine Gael and the Greens, neither of whom he now likes, though maybe he dislikes them less (or possibly more) than Fianna Fail; and that he failed to get elected at the last local government elections, coming last of eleven candidates. On the air I asked him to set out his stall politically and say what his proposed party would stand for. Good question, he agreed; but he had no answers other than his dislike of the others, and his belief that many other people shared his disaffection.

In the end, politics is a mixture of personalities and ideas, and you need to have the right mixture of both to connect with the electorate. I thought Leo Armstrong was a charming man, but he didn’t have the political stature or presence that he would need, and he clearly hadn’t applied his mind to the ideas thing at all at all. So why in heaven’s name was he news? That we were discussing him and talking with him probably tells us something about the state of the political system right now. In particular, it tells us something about the alarming inability of some of the political leaders to communicate their message and through that keep the country focused. If a small meeting in a pub with an ill-defined political agenda makes it into the news, someone should be worried. Pat Cox and Michael McDowell’s teasing the MacGill summer school may be one thing, but getting all excited about the chat over a pint somewhere or other is quite another.

All the political parties need to re-tune their message and engage the wider public. Democracy depends on it.