Sunday, March 13, 2011

Employment Control Framework

Over the last few years, the public sector has been working under what is called the Employment Control Framework. This document put in place strict rules about appointments and promotions in the sector where exchequer funding was being spent. This was an attempt to control the public wage bill from continuing to grow. In 3rd level this has been difficult to deal with as it made academic promotion almost impossible, hiring of research staff took forever to be approved even for fixed term hires and all contract staff in support sections were let go.

Now it transpires that in the dying moments of the last government a new framework was announced that will last from 2011-2014. This version puts even further restrictions on the freedom of the universities to manage their own employment matters even where the funding is not from the exchequer - EU funding, philanthropic donations or postgraduate and overseas student fees. This is extremely worrying for the third level sector in Ireland.

This new document is an attack on the autonomy of the institutions covered by the Universities act. It is using the economic situation as an excuse for the HEA and by extension the Dept of Education to take control of third level. They are looking to put in place a system not unlike the teachers panels that operate at primary and secondary level where staff can be redeployed between schools. So if a position is funded in UCD say, they have to ask all the other institutions if they have spare staff who can be transferred before being allowed to take on new people. This is the complete antithesis of the academic way where all appointments should be made on the back of an open competition to hire the best person for the job.

The net result of the extended framework will be the continued erosion of our standing in the international academic community. We will lose existing staff to foreign universities where promotion and academic freedom are allowed and encouraged. We will also not be in a position to attract the best lecturers and researchers to our universities. The knock on effect of this is that we will also lose our best students to foreign universities and they will not be here to take up positions in the Smart Economy.

The university sector as a whole needs to stand up against the extension of the framework. I call on the new Minister for Education to make a statement on the matter as soon as possible. If this is the last sting of a dying Fianna Fáil wasp then it can be overturned. However, if it is retained as government policy in its current state then it shows that the new administration is, as the previous one did, only paying lip-service to the notion of a high quality education system.


  1. The bit that jumps out for me is "spare staff". What does that actually mean? If it means what it seems to mean, my reaction is that yes, these bodies need to answer serious questions about how they use their funding.

    Or to put it another way, this requirement seems like a pain but it is only being imposed because of the existence of spare staff. If in reality, there are no spare staff then this is just an extra stamp to be acquired in the process of hiring someone. That's annoying but not actually a blocker to hiring the best.

    Or to put it another nother way, you cannot both hire the best and retain those who turned out to be so far from "best" that they are now "spare". In fact, the best are less likely to want to work in an environment where, for example, they cannot fund any more researchers but there are "spare staff".

    The real fix is to have no spare staff but for whatever reason that's not on the table (presumably because that would be an actual hard decision, unlike lumping billions debt onto the tax payer). So instead we get a broken policy applied to a broken situation.

  2. Hi Fergal,

    The entire premise of the Universities Act is that each University is autonomous. Therefore if there are "spare staff" (and I'll come back to that in a second) in TCD, why should UCD have to employ them rather than take on some high flyer from outside the sector? UCD should not have to suffer for TCD's inability to manage it's employment properly.

    The "spare" issue isn't actually likely to come up at an academic level. Lecturers will always have classes to teach and research to carry out. It is more likely at admin and support levels. Say Maynooth outsources all its email to Google and Cork want to deploy a new HR system, should the staff that were in NUIM but now not managing email, be foisted on UCC to handle the HR system? Or should UCC as a separate employer not be allowed to make its own decisions about who to hire for the job?

    This to me is a consequence of Croke Park where compulsory redundancies were taken off the table. The fix doesn't work for the sector and doesn't really work for the employees either. If the state wants the universities to be more cost effective and balance their books then they have to give them their autonomy back rather than tie their hands behind their back.

  3. I agree 100% with your answer but the implication then is that to avoid this kind of crappy policy, aimed at punishing waste, the sector has to fix the waste itself. Does "give them their autonomy back" mean to put them outside of the Croke park agreement, for example? And even then, would the Uni administration do the needful given that it would inevitably lead to a ruckus?

    Leaders of monopolies (public and private) have no incentive to cause trouble within their own organisations when they can just paper over it and push the costs onto the customers. While no Uni is actually a monopoly, demand greatly exceeds supply so they get to act mostly the same way.

    I'm poking at you because I guessed that you would also point at the root cause (and you posted recently about needing to get to understand the roots of problems) yet my perception of Labour is that they would have real difficulties addressing that root cause because the fix involves compulsory reassignments at least and probably compulsory redundancies. Given that the Unis should be autonomous, that makes reassignment that much harder.

  4. Always with the awkward questions :)

    Whatever about the merits of Croke Park in most of the public service, I strongly believe that the university sector would be better off outside it. It is only through autonomy that you get academic freedom, and it is only through academic freedom that you get world class teaching and research.

    In an ideal world there would be no compulsory redundancies but I just don't see how you can have no job losses, no wage reductions and still close the gap between income and expenditure. Yes, we can, and probably should, increase the tax take at the top of the system but that hoping that the problem will be solved by retirements and "natural wastage" is a huge folly.

  5. I am not a fan of Labour or any party really mainly because party politics is about successfully not addressing the awkward questions. I liked the Greens for a while before they turned. I suppose one of the reasons I liked them was because they were themselves a walking, talking awkward question.

    I like your answer and I'd vote for you if I had a vote :)