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

Photograph: Getty

Photograph: Getty


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.

A study conducted by Dr Marie Clarke, a lecturer in UCD’s School of Education and a former president of the Irish Federation of University Teachers (IFUT) found that senior academics in Ireland work, on average, 50 hours per week, compared to an average of 48 hours across European countries. Junior academics put in an average of 47 hours per week, compared to 42 hours for their European counterparts.

Getting into the profession is tough, says one lecturer in teacher education. “I’ve been working on part-time contracts since 2007. I’m currently in a three-year contract. This sounded great at the start, but doing research-led teaching means you have to put the time in to see where your research is going, and there’s no guarantee of completing it in three years.”

The HEA says the vast majority of lecturing staff are permanent and that part-time staff have always been part of the overall mix. However, in most institutions, the number of part-time or fixed term workers, relative to permanent staff, has grown since 2008. Lecturing posts are still being advertised, but competition for the jobs is intense. In 2012-13, there were 16.74 applications for every lecturing job advertised in Trinity College.

Between 2011 and September 2013, Dublin Institute of Technology advertised 150 assistant lecturer posts across a wide range of disciplines. NUI Galway, meanwhile, advertised 249 lecturing posts, the majority of which were fixed-term or junior positions.

Colleges have to make tough decisions when vacancies arise. They can only appoint a set number of staff but not every lecturer who retires, goes on sick leave or maternity leave, or dies, can be replaced.

David Cagney, director of human resources at DIT, explains: “The Employment Control Framework says you have to reduce staff numbers and stay in budget. We have been prioritising frontline teaching posts. We’re placing more emphasis on online learning, particularly for assessment and feedback, to meet the challenges, as well as using podcasts and pre-lecture quizzes to ensure students are prepared coming into lectures. To some extent, these are developments that would have happened anyway.”

Lecturers, and their trade union representatives, are particularly miffed at this, claiming it sets different departments or subject areas against each other.

Intense competition
“When a staff member retires or resigns, we are competing with other parts of the university for a replacement,” says Catherine Emerson of NUI Galway. Setting up internal competition between different academic disciplines, however, is perhaps key to the plans of both the Minister for Education Ruairí Quinn and the HEA. “We want the institutions to focus, to say that we will be strong in some areas and not in others.” says Tom Boland of the HEA “We may not prioritise certain areas. No institution can do everything and there is unnecessary duplication, with some courses not fully subscribed.”

Earlier this year, the Minister announced plans to reduce the number of level eight degree courses.

There’s no doubt that colleges are suffering. A spokesperson for Trinity College Dublin said that the university has “mitigated the losses from core funding reductions through the use of non-Exchequer revenue from donors, commercial and ancillary activity, and through self-financing academic activity.” But he added that sustained Government investment in higher education is critical in “providing a sustainable operating environment for universities”.

Mike Jennings, general secretary of the Irish Federation of University Teachers (IFUT), says hard work by staff is keeping the sector afloat, but the elastic is about to snap. “The idea that you can just ignore increased demand and act as if there is fat in the system to be cut out is unrealistic,” he says. “There is an emphasis on maintaining the outward appearance that everything is normal, but lecturers are feeling the squeeze. Courses are being cut and student contact hours with staff are falling, but perhaps not on the significant basis that would have been expecting, which is a credit to the staff who are working longer hours than ever before.”

No college in Ireland has been able to ignore the crisis. “There’s an idea that the humanities can simply respond by giving lectures to a greater number of people at no extra input, whereas scientifically-oriented disciplines can’t give a lab period to an extra number of people because there are not enough lab places,” says Jennings. “This presumes that the only part of education is the lecture hall, and it ignores everything that takes place around lectures, such as small groups, tutorials, and one-to-one assessment. These have all suffered.”

PROFILE Dr Flaithri Neff, assistant lecturer, LIT

I always had an interest in music, and an interest in academia. After
10 years in third-level education, which included an MSc in Music Technology and a PhD in Computer Science , I was keen to pass on what I learned and I wanted to be able to continue researching.

At the age of 34, I’ve just been made permanent, as I was entitled to a contract of indefinite duration in my fifth year at the Limerick Institute of Technology (LIT). Before that, I was a tutor in interactive media at UCC. Competition for lecturing posts is intense. Until now, my contract was renewed from year to year. I was very lucky that, this year, there were hours there to be filled. I’m also lucky that LIT plays fair, but I know of many other cases where lecturers are let go after three years so that they cannot get a permanent contract. It is disheartening.

I’ve seen a lot of change in a short time. Contact hours with students have gone up by two hours. In my subject area, technology changes all the time and it is vital to stay on top of it. There’s a misconception about what lecturers do. I work about 60 hours a week between teaching, preparation, administration, and research.

It is a concern that officials are increasingly seeking to micromanage academic time. We are the experts in the field and we know what is needed.

All that said, I’m really glad I got into lecturing. It’s a really fulfilling job. I get huge satisfaction from seeing my students grow and develop into independent thinkers. I hope to be in this job for years to come.

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