Coalition to amend restrictions on third-level recruitment (Irish Times report with added links and commentary) #ecf11

Coalition to amend restrictions on third-level recruitment

SEÁN FLYNN, Education Editor

CONTROVERSIAL NEW rules on recruitment in the higher education sector are to be amended by the Government within weeks.

Officials at the Department of Education and the Department of Enterprise are working on changes to the rules which have brought angry protests from academics.

The revised Employment Control Framework (ECF) introduced by the last government in its final days restricts employment in the sector, even to research posts funded from non-exchequer sources.

The rules have been labelled as “Stalinist” and damaging to Ireland’s research interests by senior academics.

Last week, Martin Shanagher, assistant secretary at the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Innovation, admitted the framework would penalise research activity. In a confidential memo, he said the rules were introduced before their full implications were considered.

Yesterday, Minister for Enterprise Richard Bruton said the Government could not have a system that might restrict research.

In this context his department, along with others, were looking at decisions made by the last administration.

Minister for Education Ruairí Quinn said the Government would welcome constructive suggestions from third level to overcome this problem. But he also said any potential pension liability for the exchequer would also have to be addressed. Within that constraint the Government would entertain creative ideas and suggestions from the higher education sector, he said.

The new framework gives the Higher Education Authority (HEA) more 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.

In a surprise move, the education authority last night published a lengthy question-and-answer document clarifying aspects of the new framework. In the document, it rejects the charge that its approval is required for the filling of posts.

“Subject to institutional compliance with the terms of the ECF, the approval of the HEA to appointments/promotions is not required in any circumstances,” it says.

“In the case of contract research staff and non-exchequer posts the higher education institutions are requested to inform the HEA in advance of their overall plans to recruit and confirm that funding is in place for the duration of the proposed contracts and that the 20 per cent pension contribution is included in these costs.’’

In recent weeks, senior academics have questioned the legality of the framework and the manner in which it appears to undermine university autonomy.

Trinity College Dublin law professor Eoin O’Dell has published an analysis which points to legal flaws in the document.

A leading candidate in the race to be the next provost of TCD has said he would move to stop the implementation of the framework.

If elected, Prof Colm Kearney said he would seek a court order to restrain the authority from implementing the new rules.

Thanks for the promotion, Sean. I hope that, when the ECF is lifted and Trinity can once again begin promoting its staff, the members of the relevant committee considering my promotion application will have read your flattering promotion of me! :-)

A few background links:

  • One of the strongest critices of the ECF, and a regular user of the label “Stalinist” to describe it, is Ferdinand von Prondzynski: see, eg, here and here.
  • Martin Shanagher’s critique is here.
  • The HEA’s FAQ clarification is here (pdf).
  • And my legal analysis is here.

Matters are moving in the right direction. The ECF is now officially available on the HEA website, and their FAQ is helpful in explaining exactly what they consider its effect to be. Moreover, the signals from the two Ministers are very welcome. But tinkering at the edges of the Framework document will not meet the fundamental objections being raised in univerisities today – objections of principle as to the importance of university autonomy and the proper relationship of the HEA with the secor, objections of practicality as to the unworkability of the Framework, or objections of legality as to its validity. It is too early to consider the war against #ecf11 won. Rather, an important early skirmish has gone the way of the resistance. But there are many more important battles ahead.