Friday, February 4, 2011

4/02/2011: Another glitch in our 'knowledge' economy?

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?..


peter said...

well, yes, there are several more than valid points. And there is nevertheless a BUT, of course: You ask why they cannot:
"simply allocate funds to universities and let the academic and administrative staff manage these funds in line with each university/school/department own objectives?"
I can - from my experience in several instances with such systems - only say that this is a just another and very dangerous form of 'micromanaging' Actually you see in many cases that the "own objectives" degenerate in many cases: subsequently you find easily many, many new "business and management departments" ...

Anonymous said...

I am currently in this position. Until recently, I was the manager and senior researcher within a research group at a university/IT. Since all of our positions are funded externally, I too was on a fixed term contract, constantly winning new funding to keep the group operational. Having won large scale funding recently, I expected by contract to be extended in the normal fashion as it always has been over the last 5 years. This is not the case. Whereas in the past HR could internally renew contracts, now they must get approval from the HEA even if the funding is external to the organisation. However, as this article points out, the HEA have yet to publish a "new" employment control framework document before any contracts can be renewed. I am currently out of contract and unemployed despite the fact that the funds to renew my contract have been sourced externaly. The frustrating part is that the HEA have given no estimation of how long it will be before they publish the new framework. As a result I, and others like me, are stuck in contract limbo with no idea of how long we may have to wait despite the fact that the funding has already been sourced externally! Postgraduates are left without supervisors, and agreed research and commercial deliverables are being missed. Knowledge based economy indeed.

Anonymous said...

The post-docs are already leaving. Another twist is that EU funded researchers being inflicted with the public service levies (and pensions) even though they are on short-term contracts (will collect pension) and they are paid for entirely out of EU tendered funding. Do not win EU funds, do not pass go - go directly to dole. As one of these researchers it is bizarre that we are considered "public servants" for all cuts but not for any raises (increments etc). Some of us are in the state pensions some of are not (likewise the levy) depending on the whim of HR when we signed the research contract.

Anonymous said...

There is little Irish state funding to finance universities. But there is very little incentive for anyone to seek other sources of funding as ever increasing layers of bureaucracy are applied.

But Irish universities have inadequate governance, the management have increasingly been concerned with rewarding themselves or making their life easier rather than achieving the broader objectives of the organisation, something that other management has done in the public and private sectors. This makes opposing the present situation difficult.