Posted tagged ‘university staffing’

Staffing – the critical question

November 16, 2009

In the University of Leeds in Yorkshire, employees are to be balloted on strike action after the university announced that it was reducing staff numbers by 10 per cent as part of a cost saving plan. The University and College Union (UCU) has argued that the cut, if implemented, would move Leeds to the bottom of the university league table on its staff-student ration, which is a key criterion determining the overall rankings. The university has disputed this, pointing out that other universities are also reducing staffing.

Regardless of the merits or otherwise of the Leeds University plan, this story raises again a question that will ultimately affect all higher education institutions. Cuts in public expenditure are producing serious university budgets cuts in a number of countries, and as the main cost in higher education is is pay, it is clear that as cuts are introduced universities will have little choice but to reduce staffing levels. In Ireland we have the added feature that the so-called ’employment control framework’ is requiring institutions to cut staff numbers.

Assuming that this will remain a continuing process and that therefore the student to staff ration will continue to get worse, we need to have a clear strategy as to how we will cope with that. One response, at least in theory, would be to commit to raising additional external funds so as to be able to maintain current levels (or better). However, the financial climate globally makes it unlikely that such funds could be secured. Another option would be to accept the trend and to look instead at whether a model of teaching could be developed which is less staff-intensive but still capable of delivering excellent results.

Over the coming year a number of universities will face acute financial stress, and will certainly be tempted to look again at the salary bill. And perhaps there is a model of higher education out there that emphasises staffing levels less than we have been inclined to. But what is not desirable is that we accept the staffing reductions and absorb them, and then do everything we did before but with fewer staff; instead we could look at alternative teaching methods and examples elsewhere of good practice with successful results in terms of student achievement.

But we need to be clear that we are now fast approaching a situation in which the old assumptions about higher education are becoming unsustainable. Rather than tackling the traditional model by stealth we should have a plan for the future development of the sector in the context of necessary exchequer adjustments.

Staffing higher education – the snip is coming

July 17, 2009

‘An Bord Snip’ – the  Special Group on Public Service Numbers and Expenditure Programmes – is recommending in its report that there should be a reduction in the staffing of higher education by 2,000. As the group estimates that the sector employs 20,873 persons, this amounts to a cut of 10 per cent. How this reduction is to be achieved is far from clear. The narrative of the report doesn’t particularly address questions of over-staffing, but rather suggests that staff in both the institutes of technology and the universities work inefficiently, and in particular that their teaching contact hours could be increased. If we were to agree with this assertion (no particular evidence is cited to support it), it would still be far from clear how that might produce staffing reductions of this order of magnitude.

In a previous post we have already looked at the ’employment control framework’ and is implications. It is becoming clear that the way in which state funding of universities will be adjusted will make inevitable reductions in the costs of staffing borne by the exchequer. I would however suggest that if we are to achieve this it should be approached in a more sensible way. It is, on the whole, unhelpful to keep suggesting inefficiencies and under-performance; benchmarked against international standards, Irish higher education institutions are hugely under-resourced in staffing terms and quite amazingly efficient. By continuing to assert that this is not so, and that Irish higher education is inefficient, those doing so are likely to produce a negative backlash which will make any restructuring in staffing terms much more difficult.

It is much more sensible to approach it from a needs basis, rather than some cod assessment of performance. The needs argument is simply this: for the next while the taxpayer cannot afford to pay for the same number of staff, and reductions in the cost are needed. The institutions should then be allowed to plan for this as constructively as possible, and this could and should include a search for other revenues to allow them to maintain staffing levels at the best possible rate to meet quality needs.

A discussion along these lines is likely to be much more productive.