Posted tagged ‘IFUT’

An academic assessment of protest?

November 13, 2010

Following the recent violent actions on the margins of major student protest marches in both Dublin and London, the official student bodies in both cases denounced these actions by the small number of protesters who had taken part. But these denunciations have in turn been sharply criticised by representatives of local lecturers’ unions. In the relation the Dublin events, a letter was sent by members of the Maynooth branch committee of the Irish Federation of University Teachers (IFUT) to the President of the university’s Student Union. The key passage in the letter is the following:

‘Rather than criticise the actions of those who attacked the student demonstrators, the President of USI chose instead to condemn those of his own members who had attempted to occupy the Department of Finance. In our view, his comments on Wednesday last represent a shameful betrayal of those whom he was elected to serve and represent.’

In relation to the protest and violent occupation of the Conservative Party offices in London, the President and Secretary of the University and College Union branch at Goldsmiths College London issued a statement that contains the following:

‘We also wish to condemn and distance ourselves from the divisive and, in our view, counterproductive statements issued by the UCU and NUS leadership concerning the occupation of the Conservative Party HQ. The real violence in this situation relates not to a smashed window but to the destructive impact of the cuts and privatisation that will follow if tuition fees are increased and if massive reductions in HE funding are implemented.’

I have no idea of course whether these statements reflect wider views amongst academics in the universities concerned, but in any case they will hugely alienate those whose support will be needed by students and staff who are concerned about government policies and want to express their concerns. The actions by a minority of student protestors have subverted the agenda of the demonstrations, so that what is now being discussed is not the issues but the violence, and for some academics to attempt to reinforce that perspective is plainly stupid. If they want to express solidarity, it should be with the majority of the student protestors, not the violent minority.

Croke Park, what now?

June 21, 2010

For any non-Irish readers of this blog, I might just place this briefly in context. In March of this year the trade unions and the public sector employers reached an agreement on pay and conditions in the public service (after negotiations in the Croke Park stadium, hence the title). This agreement was subject to ratification by the trade unions, and the unions involved proceeded to organise ballots under their own rules and procedures. Fast forward to last week: the Public Services Committee of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions ratified the agreement, by a substantial majority.

So all sweetness and light and industrial peace, then? Well maybe, or maybe it will be more complicated. Because while the unions have endorsed the deal, some individual ones have not. One of these is the Irish Federation of University Teachers, which voted against the agreement by a decisive margin. And then there was the Teachers Union of Ireland, which organises staff in the institutes of technology amongst others, and which also voted against. And the Education Branch of the union SIPTU (which organises academics in three universities and other staff in more of them) had recommended rejection, and would have achieved a vote accordingly but for DCU staff, who voted by a comfortable margin in favour and this just balanced the votes against in the other institutions.

But more than that, IFUT and the TUI have suggested that they don’t feel bound by the ratification by the ICTU overall, and will feel mandated to take action against the agreement if necessary (I guess in violation of normal trade union rules about respecting majority verdicts). So what should happen? I have myself suggested that the agreement, or more particularly its specific terms on higher education, is misguided and may produce some problems for the sector. On the other hand, the capacity of the universities to engage the politicians and convince them and other stakeholders that a different path to reform is better may be compromised if they have undermined the overall framework of industrial stability while we seek economic recovery. For that reason militant action against the agreement would be a very dangerous strategy to follow. While the public mood is still one of anger at the antics of those who helped push Ireland into deep recession, it does not follow that it favours those who create obstacles for recovery as they might see it. The public serice-wide action organised previously largely encountered public hostility. Reasoned debate will be better, and is actually more likely to get results.

Public service agreement: which way will it go?

April 15, 2010

It is hard to call how the voting by trade union members on the Public Service Agreement will go. But if we focus specifically on unions organising in the higher education sector, there is something of a divergence of views. The executive of the Irish Federation of University Teachers (IFUT) has recommended that members (who will be voting on April 24) should reject the agreement, principally because of the provisions (in the appended sectoral agreement) on employment contracts. More than that, the union has declared that if members vote to reject the agreement, but a majority of public service unions vote in favour, IFUT will not see itself bound to follow the majority verdict.

On the other hand the country’s largest trade union SIPTU, which organises in a number of the universities (including DCU), has recommended acceptance of the agreement, arguing that the agreement, while not perfect, is the best that members can expect at this time and that it will protect pay and conditions.

It seems to me that the future of the agreement is on a knife edge. It is also clear that the provisions in the sectoral agreement on higher education have not helped, as they show little understanding of the sector. On the other hand, rejection of the agreement will create an extremely uncertain national climate in which we would have to expect further cuts and, in all probability, unilateral government action regarding higher education funding and governance.  None of this is made easier by the fact that the universities are far removed from the negotiations and have had no influence over the terms of the agreement.

There is no easy way forward. One way or another, there are interesting times ahead.

Balancing teaching and research

January 27, 2010

On my first day as a Lecturer in a particular Dublin university in October 1980, I was called to the office of my Head of Department, Professor Charles McCarthy, and he gave me the following advice which stayed with me throughout my professional life. The only way to have a satisfying and successful academic career, he suggested, was to be both a passionate teacher and a dedicated researcher. ‘Go and teach your students as if the country’s future depended on it – which it does – and then go and publish as much research as possible. And never lose sight of either of those tasks.’ It was excellent advice.

Of course in those days it was also quite unusual advice. Research had not become the essential academic activity it now is, and I would guess that in my Faculty back then barely a quarter of staff would have been doing anything we would count as research, and the proportion of those whose research output would have made an impact in today’s research assessment culture would have been even smaller. Nowadays it is all different, and research has become a core activity in universities, and individual academic performance in this context is key to a number of things, including career progression.

So has all this gone too far? The Irish Federation of University Teachers (IFUT) think so. In their submission to the steering group undertaking the higher education strategic review, the union suggested the following.

‘The evidence that the teaching role of academics has been undermined is incontrovertible. Academics are increasingly diverted away from the teaching of undergraduates towards the pursuit of research grants and the knowledge economy. There is no doubt that academic teaching benefits from research and we are not arguing for teaching-only academics. However, it is easy to demonstrate how the universities discourage engagement with teaching. This can be seen in the patterns of appointments, the terms of promotion schemes, the rewards and recognition systems. It is made abundantly clear to young staff that teaching is a necessary but somewhat irrelevant activity: not worthy of investment. Older staff, with a commitment to teaching, find themselves increasingly harassed for a failure to join the new world of high level research. Naturally, this view will never appear in an official document from any university. However, we work in the universities and we know.’

I would have to say that while there are issues raised in this extract that merit attention, the argument is over-stated to an extent that weakens its impact. I do not believe that any university officer (including a Department Head) has ever suggested to a young lecturer that teaching is ‘irrelevant’, or ‘not worthy of investment’. Such advice if given would not only be objectionable but also extremely silly, as teaching is crucial to a university’s funding and this is well recognised. I imagine that ‘older’ staff do get reminded (where that is necessary) of the importance of research as part of the portfolio of academic activities, and this will be done not least because all the empirical evidence suggests that, in the overwhelming majority of cases, good researchers are good teachers in higher education. Encouraging those whose careers may have begun before there were as many expectations regarding research is important not least as a way of raising the game when it comes to teaching.

But for all that, it is right to ask whether we always get the balance right. In particular, we need to ask whether we always manage to hold on successfully to what I regard as a critical principle of academic life: that all academics should be teachers and researchers, and that neither activity should be taking place in a ghetto untouched by the other. The academic vocation is about scholarship, which involves the discovery, critical assessment and dissemination of knowledge. Separating these aspects is hugely undesirable.

It will probably always be the case that there will be some – post-docs, for example, or teaching assistants – who will typically at the start of their careers for a while focus on one aspect only. But for those who become lecturers and who enter upon the full-time academic career, there should be no doubt that they should be both teachers and researchers, and they should allow each of these activities to fertilise the other. Universities in turn should organise themselvcs accordingly, so as to ensure that the balance of teaching and research is recognised and protected; NUI Galway, for example, have adopted a learning, teaching and assessment strategy which is interesting in this context. Perhaps the trickiest issue to get right here is how to reward and recognise teaching excellence in a way that encourages academics to plan their teaching as a component of career development and promotion. Some universities have put significant effort into addressing this.

Not every academic needs to pursue teaching and research in exactly equal measure, but every academic should do some of each. I still believe that the advice I was given as I began my career was correct.