Anyone reading this blog more than once or twice would know by now - I've got plenty of deficit cutting credentials. But sometimes, the absurdity of cuts and associated policies can get even to a hawk like myself. So here we go, again.
Here's an extract from the HEA to administrators and heads of schools in Irish Universities, dated, per my source, from January 19th last:
"As you are aware the Employment Control Framework for the higher education sector expired on the 31st December 2010. A revised framework for the sector, which will operate until 31 December 2014, is currently being drafted. Some further reductions in the number of posts that may be filled will be required under the new Framework. We will inform you as soon as possible of the revised reduced targets for your institution.
Pending finalisation of the revised Framework I wish to advise that all proposals for recruitment of staff, both contract and permanent and regardless of source of funding (core grant, research grant or non-exchequer), must be submitted in advance to the HEA."
Ok, so HEA are requiring explicit approval for all hires. sounds reasonable? Sure, if we are talking about the normal course of business. But imagine the following situation:
A researcher gains a very large EU research grant that requires hiring research assistants and post-doctoral researchers. The funds have nothing to do with the Irish Exchequer deficit. The job is specified and milestones are set in... err... kind of set in stone. But HEA approval requires time - as I've heard, up to 3-6 months. Now, imagine the researcher blowing through the milestones and losing a grant. Some savings to the Exchequer? Nope - actually - a loss. Exchequer loses income tax from the hires who never materialized, from the purchasing done for the purpose of research and so on.
And there's an added danger - if such uncertainty is present in the market for new researchers and promotion, the brighter academics might discount Ireland as a good research location. After all, academic market is truly global, folks.
Is that a serious problem? Yes, a number of researchers I have heard of are currently in this predicament with one being just a few days from giving an offer to a junior research staff.
Now imagine another scenario - also, per my sources close to playing out. A major corporation decides to provide a grant to an Irish University for research. The grant stipulates hiring certain number of researchers and other staff. Oops... the letter goes out to the corporate headquarters, saying that HEA approval is needed. What's the likelihood that the grant is going to travel to the UK? Or another jurisdiction, where fiscal cuts might be in place, but policymakers have some finesse to understand that when the money comes from outside the state coffers, hiring decisions should be made by those managing these funds...
What beats me is why can't the Exchequer simply allocate funds to universities and let the academic and administrative staff manage these funds in line with each university/school/department own objectives? Why is there such a need to micromanage fiscal adjustments.
Oh, and while we are at it, here's another question. If we stop renewing and issuing new contracts for post-docs, how fast will the reality of unemployed phds arrive to our shores? And what will happen to our knowledge economy's grand plan for doubling phds output?..