These daft Soviet-style controls on universities must be abolished


LEFTFIELD:If the Government insists that the civil service micro-manages our colleges, it will destroy third level education

AS EVERYONE knows, these are difficult times, and we are all having to make new sacrifices. Universities have been no exception, and over the past few years, their funding has dropped while student numbers have soared. Staff have seen their workloads increase, while their pay has been cut. Mostly, the colleges have taken this on the chin, though I won’t pretend that morale is high.

Then along comes something absolutely and totally crazy, something mindlessly destructive and completely counter- productive, even in terms of what it is supposed to achieve.

I am talking about the Orwellian-sounding Employment Control Framework (ECF), a Soviet Union-style centralised bureaucratic framework for stifling all initiative and for civil service micro-management of individual colleges. I have been trawling my dictionary of insults to see if I can come up with an adjective that adequately describes this idiocy, and I have found nothing to express it.

Let me try to explain. In 2008 the Government, alarmed by the deterioration in the public finances, imposed a recruitment and promotions embargo in the public service. The higher education institutions were told that this would also apply to them, but after some protests the Government agreed that a special framework would be introduced for third level. And this is where the ECF emerged. Its first draft envisaged Higher Education Authority (HEA) approval for every appointment, and that there would be some rules applying to this: no administrative or support staff vacancies could be considered for replacement, and only one in three academic positions becoming vacant could be filled.

The Irish Universities Association – representing the seven university presidents – fought hard on this, pointing out that if this were to be applied, universities would quickly grind to a halt as the expertise needed to run a number of courses and conduct research programmes would disappear. Eventually, a revised ECF emerged under which universities were given staffing reduction targets of 6 per cent between December 2008 and December 2010. Thankfully, externally funded posts were not covered. In addition, the scheme prohibited all promotions and permitted only fixed-term appointments for those vacancies that could be filled (including externally-funded ones), thereby creating the casualisation of academic employment and the ending of career development.

Nevertheless, the universities worked with the scheme, and by December 2010 all had met the staffing reduction targets. By the end of 2010, signals were sent that a new version of the ECF might emerge. Now along comes the ECF mark II, and if you didn’t like the first one, you were going to hate the second testosterone-pumped one.

Under this, the framework is to continue until 2014 at least, with further staffing reductions and a continuing ban on promotions. In addition, non-exchequer funded posts are now also covered, and a whole new set of bureaucratic conditions is being imposed.

Indeed, the problem has become such that I know of one team of researchers who now feel obliged to return some external funding for a project because they will be unable to hire the staff to conduct it (which would have been at no cost to the taxpayer).

The HEA, clearly taken aback by loud cries of anger from the third-level sector, has responded by suggesting that the new ECF is not as bad as has been made out. The HEA indicated that the framework would not prevent the hiring of staff not funded by the State and that the HEA would not impose fines for non-compliance. In the meantime, we know from a leaked memo from the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Innovation that other parts of Government were just as taken aback and alarmed as the third-level sector was. Joined up Government? Not a bit.

To be quite clear, nobody denies that universities must accept that the public funding crisis also affects them. The colleges themselves understand that they must live within their means, and that if public funding is cut they will have to make savings.

What has angered the sector is the programme of micro- management of legally autonomous institutions, and of a crazed bureaucracy that is now stifling innovation and enterprise, as well as undermining staff morale. It is doing completely unnecessary damage to universities, just when these are needed to help produce investment and job creation. And it is doing all this without even saving any money for the taxpayer.

It cannot be said loudly enough. This scheme is mad. It is senseless and destructive. It harms Ireland’s recovery. And it must be reversed as a matter of absolute priority.