Anger mounts against third-level controls

 

PRESSURE IS intensifying on the Department of Education and the HEA (Higher Education Authority) to abolish new controls on the higher-education sector imposed by the last government which have provoked an outcry from academics.

While the HEA continued to defend the new controls on recruitment, the seven university presidents appear hopeful the controversy can be resolved over the next week in behind-the-scenes discussions with the authority.

The presidents, represented by the Irish Universities Association (IUA), have expressed dismay at the revised Employment Control Framework which gives the HEA an overarching role in respect of all appointments.

The new framework, issued by the last government in its dying days, gives the HEA power to scrutinise and approve appointments. It applies not just to core staff but to all staff employed in higher education, whether their posts are funded by the exchequer or not.

Last night the HEA sought to defend the new framework, claiming that commentary in the media and online had greatly exaggerated its role.

“Overall the role of the HEA is one of oversight, not control and it is the intention of the HEA to work with the sector to ensure that the objectives of the Government can be met in the most efficient way. The intention is to provide continuing recruitment and promotion freedom to the institutions in the context of the wider public service moratorium.”

The HEA says its prior approval for appointments/promotions is not required in any circumstances. The requirement to submit proposals in advance to the HEA is necessary to provide assurance around due process, it claims.

It also says the new rules will have no impact on current research staff or programmes and the appointments of research posts will not be impeded by the framework – provided they are fully funded under a particular revenue stream.

The additional reporting requirements in respect of these posts is because they are required to be included in EU-IMF reporting returns where they involve a future pension liability for the exchequer.

The authority also says there is no proposal to cut college funding in the event of failure to adhere to the framework.

Last night’s statement did little to assuage the anger among academics at the proposals with Minister for Education Ruairí Quinn iunder increasing pressure.

Meanwhile, HEA chief executive John Hennessy has defended the value of a third-level education, despite the rise in graduate unemployment, at the Union of Students in Ireland conference.

“At the end of 2010, the unemployment rate among people with a third-level honours degree or above was 7 per cent – exactly half the national unemployment rate of 14 per cent at the time.”

He told delegates that cutbacks meant that students had to work with lower levels of service and in more crowded education spaces, but “it is not conceivable that we can continue indefinitely in this way without damaging quality”.