Posted tagged ‘promotion’

Punishing promotion

February 9, 2011

One of the undoubtedly maddest measures affecting higher education taken by the Irish government in recent years has been the ‘Employment Control Framework’, mentioned on several occasions in this blog. This Orwellian sounding regulation, imposed as part of the recent cost-cutting drive in the public service, sets out to reduce staffing in higher education institutions, restrict the capacity of universities and colleges to appoint staff to vacant posts and prohibit them from promoting anyone within the system – even where institutions have already met salary cost reduction targets.  It has in this way put an end to career development within higher education.

Trinity College Dublin decided to deal with this situation by promoting 27 members of staff last year, but delaying the associated salary increases until January 2011, the date on which the ‘Employment Control Framework’ formally ceased to have effect. It has now been reported that the Higher Education Authority intends to impose ‘massive fines’ on TCD, so as to protect the exchequer ‘from any unauthorised costs’.

There are several things wrong with this. First, there have been no ‘unauthorised costs’, nor could there be. Under the Irish legal framework, no individual costs incurred by any university have to be ‘authorised’ by anyone, except where salaries are paid outside of the normal public service pay scales (which does not apply here, as all the promoted academics will continue to be paid on those scales). Secondly, TCD has (like all the universities) applied the salary cost reduction targets imposed by the government; in other words, the pay costs in the College are precisely in line with what the government required. Thirdly, the steps taken by TCD did not break the ‘Employment Control Framework’, which came to an end in December 2010. Finally, it is outside the HEA’s statutory powers to apply fines, for this or any other reason.

Career development is vital for morale and productivity in this beleaguered sector, and to remove it altogether makes no sense, when staff costs are being reduced by the institutions as required. But beyond that, it is unacceptable for the institutions of the state to seek to punish universities with penalties that lie outside their jurisdiction.

It is to be hoped that the HEA re-thinks its position in this matter.


Misleading commentary

July 19, 2010

Yesterday’s Sunday Independent newspaper contained an opinion piece by Marc Coleman under the heading ‘Highest-paid academics of Europe get yet another rise’. Actually, if you Google the name Marc Coleman you’ll get a choice of either a ‘mixed martial arts fighter’, or a self-styled ‘media economist, author and event speaker.’ I’d like to think that this piece was by the kung fu guy, but I have a hunch it was the event speaker. So I think our Marc Coleman here is the economics editor of radio station Newstalk, who also has a regular newspaper column.

In this particular piece Coleman delivers himself of some astoundingly facile comments on the French Revolution (à propos of pretty well nothing), before settling in to a theme he has pursued before and which he clearly enjoys: the unacceptable ways of the academic community. This is what he offers us:

‘As for nobility, there are many, but last week the nobles in the news were our academic elites. And if they and their royal cousins – government politicians – don’t wake up, we could be in for political chaos and economic disaster… On Monday, Trinity College Dublin (TCD) raised the pay of lecturers by between €4,000 and €10,000. The result will be the loss of part-time lecturers – the proverbial peasants – who work far harder and earn far less.’

I guess it’s important to correct this in case somebody takes it at face value. Those reading Coleman’s article without knowing the facts might conclude that TCD had implemented a general pay rise for staff – indeed, that is the clear message we are supposed to take from the piece. In fact that’s nonsense. As we have noted in this blog, Trinity’s decision related to the completion of a promotions round initiated two years ago, as a result of which 27 (out of a total of maybe 700) lecturers get a promotion in status, but for now no pay rise. Even if and when the pay rise kicks in, the impact on TCD’s budget will be tiny, and certainly won’t cause a loss of jobs for Coleman’s ‘proverbial peasants.’ But unless he didn’t inform himself at all before rushing into print, Marc Coleman knows this. What he has done is put a wholly misleading slant on a news item in order to have a go at the academic community.

The problem with such commentary is that it actually frustrates genuine attempts to produce reform. It is clear enough that academic practice will need to change further, and that universities will have to reinvent themselves and find different and better ways of conducting their business. But this is made immeasurably more difficult when hostile and misleading comments are made by those who have every opportunity to know better.

Promoting universities

July 15, 2010

If you follow the media reports, Trinity College Dublin has got itself into a spot of bother because of its decision to complete the process whereby 27 academics have been promoted to Senior Lecturer, Associate Professor and Professor. The current Employment Control Framework, which is to run until December of this year, purports to prohibit promotions of any kind, but Trinity College’s argument is that these promotions were in train before the ECF was imposed, and the salary element will not be applied until the ECF has run out at the end of this year.

It would be fair to say that the reaction to this news has not been positive. The Department of Education has been reported as seeking a report from the Higher Education Authority about the whole thing, and Trinity has mounted a defence (according to the Irish Times) based on the timing of the original promotion decisions.

But in the end that’s not really so important. Others were in a similar position. The crucial issue is that taking away promotions, and thereby telling employees that there is nothing much to work for, is hardly going to motivate them to do their bit for the ‘smart economy’. Right now we need universities, and academics, who are fired up and engaged and who will help drive forward policies to attract new jobs to Ireland.

The obvious common sense rule applies: the government should determine the higher education budget, and then let the institutions themselves work out how they think it should be spent. Micromanaging universities is not a good idea, but more crucially it is not necessary or even helpful in achieving government objectives and targets.

The academic gold standard

April 22, 2009

If you are an academic and you’ve made your way up the promotional ladder – let’s say you are a full professor – then you will have been a prolific publisher of books, monographs and refereed journal articles. And if I don’t immediately know about you, there are now various databases where I can look you up and find out what you’ve published – this is a good example. And if I need to make a judgement as to how good you are as an academic, then the information I find there will help me to make it.

As has been mentioned before in this blog, that raises a few questions about whether and how we value excellence in teaching; but let us leave that aside for now. My concern here is something different: that there may be an increasingly significant conflict between this basis of advancing someone’s academic career on the one hand, and the interests of the university on the other. It has been clear for some time that in those areas of research where the registration of intellectual property (chiefly patents) may be vital in order to protect the research and ensure that when it subsequently is exploited commercially the university gets a share of the revenues. If you publish – either before the patent is registered or in some cases at all – the commercial value of the discovery may be lost to the university for good. And just in case you are tempted to answer that all this is OK, because university research should be accessible to all, then think again: the consequence of not registering the patent is typically not that everyone can use the discovery, but rather that someone external to the university will exploit it and then register the patent themselves, thereby excluding the wider community and indeed ensuring that the financial benefits are kept in private hands. Innovation offices in universities have for some time had to struggle with these contradictions.

This has been an intractable problem in large part because the academics affected, when faced with this scenario, have to weigh up the competing claims of the university (and possibly themselves) for a share of the financial benefits of the research on the one hand, and the prospect of their career advancement on the other. That is not a dilemma we should place before them.

It seems to me that the answer to this is that we must begin to tackle much more seriously the basis on which we promote academic staff, and we may have to face up to the possibility that academic publication as the sole gold standard cannot survive as the only real basis for promotion. We must of course not compromise in our desire to have intellectual excellence and proven scholarly output as the foundation for the assessment of merit; but we may need to think again about exactly where that excellence and that output should be visible. This cannot be done by one institution acting alone, as academic reputations need to be built on a globally recognised rate of exchange; we just need to start the debate on what that should be.