Big Brother HEA

 

THE NEW restrictions on third-level colleges have unleashed an angry response from across the higher education sector. There is a widespread air of exasperation at the new measures which micro-manage the sector and appear to inhibit research and commercial activities. The new rules have been labelled Stalinist and Soviet-style by senior academics. The university heads are said to be dismayed by the move which, they say, represents a fundamental assault on college autonomy.

The revised Employment Control Framework was pushed through by the Department of Finance in the dying days of the last administration and a directive issued by the Higher Education Authority (HEA) last week. Critically, the framework gives the HEA over-arching powers to scrutinise and approve appointments.

Still more remarkably, 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. This includes research-funded and commercially funded posts, such as those funded by industry, private foundations and the European Union. To compound the problem, any posts created, or any renewal or 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 Department of Education and Skills says these controls are necessary because of the IMF-EU bailout and to protect the exchequer from future pension liabilities.

But they are also counter-productive and dangerous. Taken together, the framework imposes a straitjacket on the higher education system at a time when the State is exhorting it to be more independent, more commercial and more flexible. The new controls run counter to Government policy and to the spirit of the recently published Hunt report.

There is a Big Brother element to these rules which place approval for externally funded research projects in the hands of a centralised bureaucracy with little understanding of research needs on the ground. For academics, the crude nature of the new controls will confirm a view that central government has little understanding of, or empathy with, the higher education sector.

Minister for Education Ruairí Quinn has been trumpeted as the first education minister with a strong interest in the third-level sector. His first key decision as Minister must be to rescind these measures.