To Be Honest: a young lecturer says our third-level sector is being gutted

Over-reliance on casual part-time lecturers is leading to entire academic departments with a long, proud and successful history effectively on the brink of annihilation

 

The Irish universities want to climb the global rankings. Our politicians blather on about the importance of research, of innovation, of being a knowledge economy.

It’s empty rhetoric, and it’s utterly hollow. I would love for them to just admit that our third-level sector is being systematically gutted.

There is an effective embargo on hiring new staff, which means this: when lecturers retire or get sick, there is nobody to take their place. Part-time lecturers, like me, are hired to fill the gap, on lower pay, employed on a casual, semester-by-semester basis to meet the growing number of students piling into the creaking, underfunded universities. Because it’s not possible to survive on the low income paid to casual lecturers, they work other jobs. Very few have time or inclination to carry out the very task that distinguishes third-level from secondary school: original research.

I’ve seen entire academic departments with a long, proud, and successful history effectively on the brink of annihilation. In one university department, they are almost entirely dependent on casual lecturers. Very soon, there will be no new research.

There’s an obvious human, individual cost for the young lecturers who have no prospect of ever getting a job. Most will eventually walk away when they have families to support. The real cost will come to the nation as a whole. No new research will be generated by our universities, save that with a “commercial” application.

Already, the few remaining permanent lecturers are too overburdened by administration to carry out research. Most work seven-day weeks to a chorus of national moans about how academics do diddly squat. When they’re gone, will the casual staff be lumped with an extra admin burden? Not a chance – every single part-time lecturer will walk away for good at this point.

True innovation doesn’t necessarily have a marketable product as its end result. This is happening already. It’s why our universities are plunging down the global rankings.

Minister for Education Ruairí Quinn hasn’t hidden the funding crisis in our universities. Everyone knows there is a problem, everyone knows the nation’s finances are in dire straits.

What’s most frustrating is the dishonesty. Ruairí Quinn: come out and say it. Money is tight. You have made, or at least tacitly endorsed, a conscious decision to drain the lifeblood from the third-level sector. You think it is unfortunate that teaching, research and innovation are being strangled, but you don’t see any other way. The constant guff, spin, and nauseating pretence that it is any other way fools nobody.

Or do this: change it. It will soon be too late.

This column is designed to give a voice to those within the education system who wish to speak out anonymously. Contributions are welcome. Email sflynn@irishtimes.com, with the subject heading “TBH”.