Posted tagged ‘Public Service Agreement’

IUA Statement on the Croke Park Public Service Agreement

February 5, 2011

This is the full text of the statement by the Irish Universities Association on the implementation of the Public Service Agreement 2010-2014 (the Croke Park agreement) in the universities.

Introduction

The purpose of this paper is to clarify the universities’ position in respect of our implementation plan under the’Croke Park’ Public Service Agreement (PSA).

Background

The Public Service Agreement (PSA) was formulated against a backdrop of the worst financial crisis in the history of the state. The Agreement is aimed at improving efficiency and quality so that public services can continue to be delivered with the reduced resources available to the Exchequer. Since the conclusion of the agreement, we know that the state’s financial position has worsened considerably, leading to the agreement with the EU, ECB and IMF, of the four year national recovery plan. The current position re-emphasises the need to implement the PSA. This has been stressed by the Chair of the National Implementation Body.

Concerns Expressed about the University Plans The PSA explicitly provides for a review of academic contracts and this has been further emphasised in national policy by the recently published HE Strategy. The focus of the concerns expressed to date is that the provisions of contractual revision represent an attack on academic freedom and tenure and thus the very essence of the university.

In our view this is emphatically not the case.

These proposals must be viewed in the context of both the wider strategic stance of the universities, and the real intent underlying their specific content. These two aspects are elaborated on below.

Overall strategic position of the universities

There is a widely held view that universities which have a strong capacity for self determination are both more efficient and effective. We are fully committed to maintaining this position, and, indeed enhancing it. We made our position clear in our interactions with, and inputs to, the Higher Education Strategy group and the resultant Strategy (National Strategy for Higher Education to 2030) reflects this.

The Strategy does discuss at length the balance between institutional self determination and accountability to the state and society in general. It is appropriate that this be discussed, not least given the current crisis. There has been deep-rooted societal questioning of the causes of our economic collapse. This has included reflection on the failures of our financial regulatory system and the functioning of our entire administrative and political system. Given the depth of the crisis, the universities have sought to play their part in response. This has been reflected in the universities agreeing to cut staff numbers by over six percent while continuing to respond to the demand for additional student places.

In summary, the universities are committed to the principle of self determination and to enhancing this over time.

Content of the PSA Plan

In line with the overall strategic position outlined above, it must be stressed that the theme underlying the plan is accountability and not control. As regards the proposed contractual revisions these have been driven by a desire to identify good practice across the universities and to consolidate this on a sectoral basis. In terms of the specific provisions, it is worth highlighting the major ones and elaborating on their intent and the thinking underlying them, as follows:

Attendance/hours of work

Attendance: this is stated as a requirement to be in attendance at the university during the normal working week and for the duration of the college year which is 12 consecutive calendar months.

It will be apparent that there has been considerable questioning of academic hours of work in recent times. At the Public Accounts Committee the University Presidents and IUA strongly defended the record of University staff and firmly rejected simplistic definitions of academic hours based on contact time. In our inputs to the HE Strategy process, and at the PAC, we rejected efforts to impose a requirement for fixed hours within the academic contract. We believe this would inhibit flexibility and ultimately compromise the widespread excellent commitment which staff have demonstrated.

However, we believe it is reasonable to set down minimum standards in respect of attendance as outlined above. Some have suggested that this is to have the effect of physically shackling academics to the university and banning remote working etc. We want to stress that this is categorically not the case. Our concern is fundamentally about accountability for work and, in practice, this provision is simply to consolidate a framework which protects against cases of obvious abuse of the freedoms which currently exist and which we support. Thankfully, those abuses are extremely rare, but it cannot be denied that they have occurred.

Tenure

Here, we are seeking to establish that tenure is consistent with the established corpus of employment law and, in that context, refers to the duration of contract.

It has been suggested that the above represents a concerted attempt to casualise university employment. Again, this is emphatically not the case.

However, the concept of tenure dates from a time when employment law was much less well developed. We now have a national legal framework incorporating, inter alia, the Unfair Dismissals and Fixed Term Workers Acts which provide considerable protections to employees generally. We strongly support employment security for staff.

In some of the commentary, the concepts of tenure and academic freedom have been conflated, with the implication that any contextualization of tenure will be used to attack academic freedom by facilitating the dismissal of staff who express unpopular ideas.

This is a completely wrong characterisation as will be reflected in the section on academic freedom, where we vigorously uphold and support freedom of thought and enquiry.

We do not believe that it is helpful to have an amorphous concept of tenure which somehow subsists in a parallel realm to that corpus of law. Such subsistence at best creates ambiguity, and at worst, creates the impression that tenure will be advanced to create an absolute prohibition on dismissal or sanction, even in the worst and thankfully extremely rare cases of misconduct. The fostering of such an impression is enormously damaging to the public reputation of the universities, to our desire for continued and enhanced self determination, and it does no service to the vast majority of staff within the university.

Academic Freedom

The capacity of universities to develop new knowledge and to share that knowledge within the collective community of learners and with the wider society is essential: in the literal sense, it is the essence of what defines a university. We have consistently defended this.

We have firmly and repeatedly rejected the notion of universities as mechanistic institutions which exist to supply static units of learning to a cohort of passive consumers. Most recently we gave an extensive presentation to the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Education and Skills showcasing the range of innovation and high quality demonstrated by our universities and emphasizing the contribution of our academics as independent thinkers and contributors to national and international debate.

We are unambiguously committed to academic freedom of thought and enquiry.

We are equally committed to our academics’ freedom to continuously vary what is taught as the universe of knowledge expands. We believe that the continual testing of what is held to be true is essential for all in the community of learners.

There can and should be no doubt of this and we will defend this position.

What we must do as a foundation for that defence, is to distinguish between freedom and licence.

This is what we are seeking to do in the proposed contractual provision which states that it is to be acknowledged that the freedoms which are contained in Section 14 of the Universities Act are to be exercised in the context of the framework of rights and obligations contained in the contract.

As articulated in this paper, the obligations element is simply a framework that contains accountability requirements which reflect the excellent practice of the vast majority of academic staff and which also safeguard against those cases of abuse which, though extremely rare, have the capacity to undermine public confidence in the universities.

Public Confidence

It is worth considering further the importance of public confidence. Universities have an essential role within society in the creation of new knowledge and in challenging conventional wisdom and accepted truths. However, if this role is to be effective, universities must have public trust and confidence.

Trust and confidence are qualities which are earned; universities have no intrinsic right to them. Intellectual freedom which exists in the absence of such trust and confidence would be a debased currency of little or no value. It would reduce universities to voices crying in the wilderness, dependent on society for their subsistence but powerless to influence it.

Conclusion

In summary, the PSA plans are designed to reinforce all that is good in our university system and provide for the further enhancement of our self determination.

They allow Universities to maximise their traditional and properly-valued contribution to society, as well as making a real contribution to national recovery.

Their implementation will enhance our reputation and strengthen public trust and confidence in our institutions.

In consequence they will strengthen our voice and our position in society to the benefit of, students, society and staff alike.

 

 

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.

Public Service Agreement: sectoral agreement on higher education

April 6, 2010

As I have noted previously, the proposed Public Service Agreement that is to be the basis for pay and conditions in the Irish public sector has so-called ‘sectoral agreements’ appended to it. One of these concerns education, and the subsection on ‘universities and other higher education institutes’ (not including Institutes of Technology, by the way, as these have a separate section) runs as follows, in full:

• With effect from the start of the 2010/11 academic year, the provision of an additional hour per week to be available to facilitate, at the discretion of management, teaching and learning in the university/institute.
• Co-operation with the introduction of academic workload management and full economic costing models and with the compilation of associated data to support these.
• Co-operation with redeployment/re-organisation/rationalisation arising from the review of Higher Education strategy and changing economic and social circumstances.
• A comprehensive review and revision of employment contracts to identify and remove any impediments to the development of an optimum teaching, learning and research environment. This review and revision to be completed in advance of the start of the 2010/11 academic year.

As I have pointed out before, I am not absolutely sure how this qualifies as an ‘agreement’, since the key players have not been involved in the discussions. However, leaving that aside we need to engage with the substance.

The first bullet point is is not, at least for now, meaningful for the university sector. We do not have a fixed number of teaching hours for academic staff, and this being so the idea of ‘adding an hour’ has no meaning. We may be seeing the emergence of pressure to change this, and to create a contractual obligation on staff as to the precise number of student contact hours; any such move would probably have the effect of reducing contact hours in practice. The second and third bullet points are in train already, though of course we do not yet know what the higher education strategy group will propose; the idea of agreeing to something where the content is not yet known might have its own problems. The final bullet point suggests, at least by implication, that employment in universities should be based on something legally quite different from what we have now. There may well be an argument for doing this, and certainly a review would be useful: but conducted by whom, and with what terms of reference?

Maybe we should just read this ‘sectoral agreement’ as suggesting that we need higher education reform. I would not argue with that proposition, at this level of generality. But not every reform is a good reform, and what strikes me here is that this brief text has been assembled with what looks very much like an outsider’s perspective on higher education, and maybe not one that is based on serious understanding of how the sector works. It will be important to flesh out the meaning of these clauses quickly, and to ensure that whatever processes are envisaged to implement this ‘agreement’ are worked out with the sector.

Public Service Agreement 2010-2014

April 3, 2010

As Irish readers of this blog will know, earlier this week the government and the social partners concluded a new Public Service Agreement, which provides for certain safeguards for public servants in relation to pay and conditions in return for acceptance of and cooperation with public sector reforms. Assuming for a moment that this agreement is ratified by the employers and the trade unions (and this cannot be taken for granted), the deal will resuscitate the idea of social partnership as the framework for national economic and social development. This will have significant implications, probably on the whole positive.

However, there are issues for higher education that will need to be looked at more closely. The agreement has a second part which contains what are described as ‘sectoral agreements’; one of these concerns higher education. This latter ‘sectoral agreement’ is worth some analysis, and I shall be returning to it early in the week. For now, however, it is worth noting that the word ‘agreement’ may itself merit some scrutiny: the ‘sectoral agreement’ for higher education was concluded without any input or even knowledge on the part of the higher education institutions. That does not necessarily mean that it is a bad document, but it may be worth asking how universities, which are autonomous institutions under statute, can have ‘agreements’ applied to them in relation to which they have had no input whatsoever.

Unrelated to the latter point, the main part of the Public Service Agreement ends with the following clause:

’28. The implementation of this Agreement is subject to no currently unforeseen budgetary deterioration.’

‘No currently unforeseen’? What on earth does that mean? I blame the Leaving Certificate.