Tough times for third-level lecturers
The image of the leisurely academic in an ivory tower is one that hard-pressed lecturers, suffering intense third-level education cutbacks, simply don’t recognise
Lecturers, and budding lecturers, should be thrilled. Demand for college places is rising exponentially. By the best estimates of the Higher Education Authority (HEA), there are just over 168,000 students in full-time higher education today; this is expected to rise year-on-year, reaching 208,416 by the year 2026. And key figures in higher education believe the real number may be higher.
On paper, this should translate into a hitherto unimagined jobs market for academic staff. In this new utopia, the days of waiting around for a lecturer to die or retire in order to take their place should be at an end, with half-decent lecturers overwhelmed with offers of tenure.
Ireland’s third-level colleges must surely raise wages as competition for the best of lecturing staff intensifies, right?
Wrong. The reality is utterly different. Last week, university lecturers became the last trade union to accept the Haddington Road agreement on public service pay and pensions, with 62 per cent voting in favour.
It was a reluctant acceptance. The universities, institutes of technology and colleges that constitute the higher education institutes (HEIs) are all in a state of unprecedented crisis. The Employment Control Framework, introduced in a time of a recession which threatened to drag the State over the edge, places severe restrictions on the number of lecturing staff that can be appointed. Student numbers may be on the up, but academic staff numbers have been decimated, falling from approximately 9,900 in 2008 to 9,057 in 2012.
Although HEIs are not shutting down entire departments or axing subjects, many modules within courses are being quietly shelved as funding dries up. The chances of a lecturing job are slimmer than ever.
For existing lecturers, at whatever stage of their career, life as a teacher at third-level has changed utterly. Dr Catherine Emerson has lectured in French at NUI Galway for 11 years. The number of students opting for European languages has risen across most colleges, as languages are seen as an employable skill and a route to emigration. “Since I started, student numbers have more than doubled,” she says. “We have had our part-time teaching budget cut. We have lost two staff members and have been given half a staff member to replace them. Modules are being dropped. Students are hardest hit. The number of atypical students, including carers, mature students, students from disadvantaged backgrounds, and students with disabilities, has increased and these are the students who need more support and attention. We have less time to meet these challenges, and are doing a great deal more with a great deal less. On average, we are working around 50 hours per week.”
The HEA accepts that Emerson’s viewpoint, which is widely shared by all third-levels colleges, is largely correct. However, according to Tom Boland, CEO of the HEA, there is no evidence that the quality of graduates has been impacted.
“It is probably the case that much of what has been lost is the ‘nice to do’ rather than essential, but academically weaker students are most at risk,” he says.
Rise of part-timers
Lecturers in Ireland teach for around six months per year. Institutes of technology lecturers are obliged to teach for 18 hours per week, although university lecturers do not have centrally imposed minimum teaching requirements.