The HEA have put the new Employment Control Framework 2011-2014 as it relates to the third level sector up on their website.  It has some significant revisions, especially concerning the application of insitution employment ceilings to include non-exchequer funded staff and the requirement to receive approval from the HEA for all staff appointments, regardless of funding source.

now encompass all staff employed in the Higher Education sector (including contract staff and staff on secondment from other bodies) who are members of public sector pension schemes, irrespective of whether their posts are funded, in whole or in part, by the Exchequer or from non Exchequer sources.” … “while staff who are not considered to be “core staff” of the institutions (because they are engaged in discretionary activities that are funded from external sources in the short term – whether Exchequer or non-Exchequer) were excluded from the staffing ceilings under the previous ECF, these staff have entitlements to future pension benefits which represent a deferred cost or liability for the Exchequer. As such, these “non-core staff” can no longer be disregarded when it comes to applying overall Government policy on numbers control in the public sector.”

There are two issues with regards to the pension issues.  First, all non-exchequer funding should come with sufficient pension contributions built into the award, so I’m not sure what the issue is.  Second, even if there is an issue we’re talking about deferred pensions on a small number of short-term contracts.  In the case of the vast majority of contract research staff these will not be accessed for thirty plus years.  To stifle getting short term job creation now, and at the same time doing damage to one of the supposed key drivers of the smart economy – the third level sector – over supposed pension liabilities in thirty years time seems ridiculously short sighted.  It is the philosophy of the bean counter.  If we don’t get the economy moving, then we’ll have a much bigger pension issue in thirty years time.

The total number of staff employed in the sector, including all permanent staff (academic, administrative, research, technical, ancillary etc) and all contract staff (academic, administrative, research, technical, ancillary etc) who are members of public sector pension schemes, and irrespective of whether such posts are funded (in whole or in part) by Exchequer funds and/or non-Exchequer funds, will be subject to the annual employment ceilings … The HEA will allocate these employment ceilings across institutions, taking into account the student numbers, staffing levels and other relevant factors in each institution.

I do not understand the logic of including all research and other non-exchequer funded staff in overall institutional ceiling figures.  What that means is that very large research grants from the EU and other bodies could be turned down because an institution is deemed to already have reached its staff quota.  Given that the salary and pension is coming from non-exchequer funds why cap the total number of employees in an institution?

“any proposals to appoint such new contract research staff or to renew such existing contracts must be put in advance to the HEA.”

As someone who runs a research institute where 13 out of my 15 staff are on short term contracts (10 of which run out in the next 11 months; the two non-contract posts are both secondments), I am acutely atuned to anything that is going to make the already very difficult task of raising everyone’s salary every year or indeed enable new staff to start more difficult.  The institute lost 7 staff last year, we will lose more this year.  We are already contributing heavily to the loss of staff in the public sector.  It seems ludicrous to me that every time we try to extend a contract we are going to have to seek permission from the HEA to do so.  The new measure is going to create an enormous amount of unnecessary bureaucratic redtape for government departments and universities and it is going to have all kinds of knock on consequences alia the competitiveness of Irish universities trying to build collaborative arrangements with business, international partners and in recruiting worldclass staff and students.

Frankly, the HEA should not be worrying about the burden of research staff on the pension liabilities thirty years down the line.  It should be worrying about losing a massive amount of research capacity in the university sector as funding lines continue to erode.  Over the past ten years the research capacity and non-exchequer funding of Irish universities has massively improved.  All universities have moved up the world rankings and several worldclass research centres have developed, including NIRSA.  There is a very big danger of reversing all this progress out.  Far from seeking to constraint the pursuit of research funding and contract posts, it should be trying to find imaginative ways to aid attracting and creating such posts.  For a country interested in pursuing a smart economy agenda, this does not seem very smart.  Creating a large new layer of bureaucracy and stifling non-exchequer funded research work seems pretty dumb actually.

Rob Kitchin