Friday, March 25, 2011

Employment Control Framework: the last word

It's been an interesting few weeks in Irish universities. Perhaps for the first time, everybody in the sector seems to be singing from the same hymn-sheet: the Employment Control Framework II is madness. That is certainly my opinion.
But on mature reflection (timpani roll...) is it so important? Well it depends on who - or where- you are? If you have a lab with 7 post-docs, 15 PhD students and a bunch of bottle washers it must be a bind. But for many people its probably pretty irrelevant. Most of the latter are in the humanities/arts/social sciences. Definitely not people involved in the SSTI/Smart economy global research strategy agenda framework.
At times like this, when a cool-headed, objective stance is necessary, one inevitably looks to one's own parish instead. In my own unit (School of Economics, UCD) I doubt if the ECF has much operational significance over all. So ultimately, that would be an empirical matter, as Father Jack might say and I don't see many of my colleagues keeling over in apoplexy. Well, no more than usual. Numbers aside, it might be argued that the ECF is bad because of the absurd micro-management that it represents. This is indeed worrying. Unless you are a manager, of course.
So cheer up folks, there are lots of worse things could happen to the universities and indeed these are happening anyway. To list these seems a bit of a whinge especially given the privations that people are experiencing.


Liam Delaney said...

I suppose Kevin what is really wrong about this is that it is unneccesary. Noone can really complain about pay cuts etc., Everyone else is going through them and many people are losing their job. There is no logic to this policy and it is a lot worse than you represent. It is not just about people with big labs. In fact, I would be willing to bet money with you that big labs will see more favourable treatment than regular faculty once this is ironed out. This makes it so that everyone who wants to do a research project in a university has to get it cleared by a small state committee. Looking on the bright side is fine but this needs to be stopped and it is definitely the case that the widespread and angry response has at least put the thing on the agenda

Liam Delaney said...

Also, this is your last word on this perhaps but it should only be the beginning for anyone who really cares about having a proper university in Ireland.

Colm Harmon said...

I think the wider issues are important. Over and above the research contract posts, all posts are subject to an overall quota for the sector (so no hiring in effect of anybody including contract lecturing staff because the contract staff quota will get used up easily). If admin leave even at department level, no replacement period. Promotions are at sectoral level so promotions in UL will imply no promotions in UCD. The HEA say this is not the case but that is not what is written down.

Ferdinand von Prondzynski said...

Kevin, the key issue here is a somewhat different one: it is that the ECF makes institutional development a matter of bureaucratic authorisation rather than a matter of institutional and collegial decision-making. Also, it undermines career development and casualises university employment.

Kevin Denny said...

My point was not that the ECF isn't bad, for reasons that have been well articulated but that its worse for some than others so what the over all effect is unclear. So, I didn't "represent" that it wasn't a big problem. For many people in the university, it is a sideshow. Hardly any one that I meet on a day-to-day basis is that bothered. Maybe they are not typical but nor are some of the more shrill voices that have criticized the policy.
Universities in Ireland operate under huge handicaps on an on-going basis (some, to an extent, self-imposed) and it doesn't look like its going to get any better soon. I think that the attention that the ECF has received is arguably disproportionate. At the margin, for some people, it is probably a nightmare but the notion that by itself it will "kill innovation" as someone claimed is doubtful. For example in the social sciences, there is a dire lack of good publicly available data on Ireland as well as a systemic lack of research funding. This is what is holding back research big time (and one could add to the list) but in a sense we are used to that so perhaps thats why people are not taking to the streets over it.
Sometimes particular issues act as a touchstone which energizes a particular constitutency permanently and if thats what this issue does, fine. It remains to be seen.
I agree (FvP) that this introduces a stupid level of bureaucracy (for some) but then universities have been busy doing that themselves. So its a bit rich for senior management to talk about the importance of autonony when individual academics autonomy is being steadily eroded.

Liam: your second comment might be interpreted to imply that I don't really care about having a proper university in Ireland. Since this would be blatantly untrue and gratuitiously offensive, I assume that this is not what is intended.

James McInerney said...

My feeling is that for me, at least, it looked like it was going to be quite a substantial problem. Rolling the post-docs in along with the core staff and then reducing the core staff numbers would certainly mean the end of post-docs for me. My research can function without post-docs but it is very difficult. The last two years have been dispiriting. SFI gave out almost no new money in 2010 and this looked like a final choke-hold on the part of the govt.

Also, the format was peculiar. What would happen if post-docs quotas were to be traded between institutions like some kind of latter-day milk quota (farmers used to be able to buy milk quotas from one another in the past)?

I cannot emphasise enough that to me and some others, this was a pretty important issue. I cannot quantify what it means throughout the whole sector.

Liam Delaney said...

My comment genuinely wasn't intended to be a personal insult Kevin so I have no problem fully acknowledging that I dont have any question about your belief in the importance of higher education and apologies if the comment had that unintended implication. I was reacting to your "final word" tag and was making the point that this should not at all be the final word on this issue. I stand by the assertion that people who value higher education like yourself should take this issue extremely seriously, more seriously than your post and comments here imply. I have spent a good part of the last 10 days on this issue privately and publicly so I dont know if I want to spend any more effort trying to convert you. You have a lot of experience and if that's your view then so be it.

Liam Delaney said...

John - your interventions have been really good on this issue but I am not clear why you are writing about this in the past tense. The HEA modification document has no standing and its not at all clear what it adds to the debate other than a hint by the HEA that they might be flexible in implementing this.

Anonymous said...


I think that the Employment Control Framework 2 (ECF 2) is very important, and certainly quite problematic. However, I am not coming at this from the viewpoint of any particular department in any higher education institution; or any particular research institute, project or team. I am more concerned about the overall process of doing research in this country. So I am coming at this from the viewpoint of an economist who cares about science policy in Ireland. Overall, I think the effect is clear; ECF 2 is clashing with the existing science policy in this country; and could seriously damage the Smart Economy initiative.

A central idea in Irish science policy is to focus on being a clever copycat rather than developing our own R&D capacity. In other words, Ireland should just do the 'D' in R&D (Innovation Task Force, 2010). This idea is being pursued because it is often the case that companies make more money from adapting and utilising technology than they do from inventing new technology (Innovation Task Force, 2010). Looking at the existing evidence, we know that the absorption of foreign knowledge is an important factor for economic growth (Bye et al., 2009); and it has been demonstrated that the absorption of foreign knowledge is a function of human capital (Dorwick, 2003). The availability of researcher-labour is cited by Veltri et al. (2009) to be the most important factor in the location-decisions of multinational firms who invest in R&D.

If Ireland is to absorb foreign knowledge related to basic scientific research, it needs Ph.D. graduates who have been trained in how to conduct scientific research. Ireland's ability to absorb and adapt innovation from elsewhere crucially depends on it having a strong R&D culture (Innovation Task Force, 2010). Therefore, we need Ph.D. graduates working as post-docs in Ireland. (Indeed, this is why I have steered part of my thesis towards an investigation into the micro-level determinants of post-doc's patent and publication output.)

Martin Shanagher, assistant secretary at the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Innovation, has admitted that the new framework would penalise research activity in this country. Under the new framework, there is a cap on the numbers of staff in employment in the third-level sector, even if the money is provided by non-exchequer sources. Given that many post-docs could potentially be hired (in Ireland) through external funding sources - and thereby create a culture of R&D in this country - I am very worried about the implications for a Smart Economy. (Never mind that many international collaborators now face uncertainty about working with Irish researchers).

Overall, in my opinion, there is a clash between the vision of the Innovation Task Force and the elements of ECF 2 that were not part of ECF 1. I wonder if a possible solution would be to repeal ECF 2 and simply revert back to using ECF 1?