Quinn under pressure to lift third-level restrictions

 

MINISTER for Education Ruairí Quinn is under intense pressure to rescind restrictions on third-level colleges that were pushed through by the last government in its final days.

The Employment Control Framework imposes controls and appears to limit commercial activities by the colleges. Certain appointments, even in the key research area, will require the approval of the Higher Education Authority.

Critically, the new framework applies not just to core staff but to all staff employed in higher education who are members of public sector pension schemes, whether their posts are funded by the exchequer or not.

This includes research-funded and commercially funded posts, such as those funded by industry, private foundations and the EU.

The authority says the basis for this approach is that “these staff have entitlements to future pension benefits which represent a deferred cost or liability for the exchequer”.

Any posts created or any renewal/renegotiation of existing contracts for non-core staff will be subject to an employer’s pension contribution charge of 20 per cent of gross pay.

The other main features of the new framework – pushed through by the Department of Finance and issued by the authority – includes more staff cuts, stringent limits on appointments and the possible withdrawal of State funding from non-compliant colleges.

The measures were labelled “Stalinist” by a senior university figure yesterday.

University presidents say that they are “gravely concerned” by the measures.

One senior figure said: “The State has told us to be more commercial, to generate more income from external sources and to raise our game when it comes to attracting more foreign students. But this kind of micromanagement undermines our potential.”

Last night, Prof Des Fitzgerald, UCD’s vice-president for research, warned the universities were now facing a “ruinous period as good work in the colleges was being undone by State policies like the new framework”.

Donncha O’Connell, of the school of law at NUI Galway, said that the directive would place approval for externally funded research projects “in the hands of a centralised bureaucracy which clearly has no practical conception of how the search for knowledge happens in a modern and diverse society.”

Last night, the Department of Education said it was not the intention that appointments of research-funded and commercially funded posts “will be impeded by the framework – provided institutions can demonstrate that they are fully funded under a particular revenue stream.

“In this regard, it is intended to keep the identified projections of number requirements under these categories under review in the operation of the framework.”

The dispute over the new framework presents Mr Quinn with something of a dilemma. While he may be anxious to overturn new rules agreed by the last government, he may be reluctant to confront the Department of Finance on the issue.

In its statement to The Irish Times last night, the Department of Education said that the additional requirements in respect of non-core posts “reflects the fact that they are required to be included in EU-IMF reporting returns where they involve a future pension liability for the exchequer.”

Staff numbers in higher education were cut by 6 per cent under an earlier Employment Control Framework issued in 2008.