This morning AIRO released a new interactive mapping module that maps the catchments of all the universities and six of the IOTs using Irish Times school feeder data 2009-2011.  The module is available here and the talk from HEA conference in the Aviva Stadium is here – HEA Talk 2012 2.pptx.  The maps below are the 7 universities and 6 selected IoTs.  What the maps show is that no one institution has a truly national catchment, with the majority of students coming from the immediate regional area.  The dots are schools.  On the interactive version, if you click on the school it will provide information relating to how it feeds into the HE system.  The powerpoint also gives some basic demographic information on future demographic demand – it is clear that the HEIs are going to come under huge pressure as the present 0-14 age group works its way through the education system (demand is set to increase by c.30% over the next two decades).


Rob Kitchin, Eoghan McCarthy and Justin Gleeson


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

The Hunt report – A National Strategy for Higher Education – was published yesterday.  It covers a lot of ground with respect to teaching/learning, research, engagement, internationalisation, funding, governance and so on, and here I’m just going to focus on what it has to say about the relationships between institutions and possible rationalisations.  As with other HEA initiatives such as PRTLI and SIF, the report strongly advocates inter-institutional cooperation between “diverse, responsive and sustainable institutions”, “each of appropriate scale and capacity”, that increasingly have “distinct and well-defined roles, responsibilities and interrelationships”.  As such, institutions will on the one hand seek to develop core, niche competences, and on the other work with each other with respect to shared areas of interest in order to gain critical mass and pool “expertise, knowledge and resources”.

Interestingly, the method envisaged to facilitate such cooperation is a regional clusters model, wherein collaboration is fostered “between clusters of geographically proximate institutions, to ensure that individual, enterprise and societal needs are addressed in a planned, coherent and efficient way”.  Rather than paraphrase, I’ll quote from the report itself on the logic at play here, which – if this route is to be pursued – I think has merit as an approach.

“Clusters will be characterised by close coordination and cooperation between various types of independent higher education institutions. Together they will determine and meet the needs of a wide range of students, communities and enterprises in their region. This will require joint programme planning, collaborative research and outreach initiatives, agreements on mutual recognition and progression, and joint strategies for advancing regional economic and social development. The institutions will also engage with other statutory providers of education and training, such as FÁS and the VECs, to develop integrated regional learning strategies. The HEA should promote such regional clusters by providing incentives and by requiring institutions to build regional collaboration into their strategic plans.

The cluster model complements the National Spatial Strategy, and will benefit from the ongoing improvements in regional governance structures. These offer the potential to enhance engagement between higher education institutions and local authorities, local State agencies and other stakeholders, and to assist in developing shared solutions to local and regional needs.”

I think an alignment with the NSS, regional development and the concept of learning regions makes much sense as it places these kinds of arrangements within a larger strategic developmental framework rather than allowing the evolution of the higher education sector to unfold in an ad hoc manner.  And institutions have already recognised this and started to organize themselves into clusters that are regionally grounded – e.g., TCD/UCD alliance, Atlantic Gateways alliance between UCC, UL and NUIG, the strategic partnership between NUIM, DCU and RCSI, the Dublin Regional Higher Education Alliance (DRHEA).  Given this regionally focused approach, the report argues against a single federal national technological university as advocated by some IoTs.

Where such collaboration has not already happened or is piecemeal or slow to develop the report suggests the use of incentives to encourage “the development of regional clusters and institutional consolidation. This would result in a smaller number of institutions and a greater level of collaboration across the system.”  Interestingly, it’s here where we come across the idea of institutional consolidation and a shrinkage in the number of institutions.  It is argued that Ireland has too many higher education institutions, many that are too small in scale.  However, it is envisaged that any consolidation will happen either within the university sector or the Institutes of Technology sector, but not between universities and IoTs, although universities and IoTs will be encouraged to increasingly work with each other and share programmes.  The emphasis here really seems to be on the merging of IoTs to gain scale and critical mass.  The report also maps out a route for some IoTs to progress to becoming technological universities, which again involves criteria with respect to the contribution or effects on a regional clusters model.

Of course, whilst the report suggests a strategic framework for the creation of regional clusters of aligned HEIs, and some moves in this direction can be undertaken without significant funding, the major issue facing the sector is chronic underfunding and the loss of staff at a time when student numbers are increasing.  The government has consistently argued for a smart economy predicated on smart citizens and at a time when it should be increasing education spend, it has been cutting it from an already low base – the proportion of GDP spend on education is poor in comparison to other European countries (30th out of 33).  There’s not much that’s very smart about that policy.  Our future is our youth.  We need to invest in education, not just reorganise the chairs on the deck as the boat sinks lower.  Regional clusters seems like a sensible way forward if the strategy in the Hunt Report is to be pursued, the bottom line however remains the bottom line.

Rob Kitchin