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In my opinion: The truth about the 'Employment Control Framework'

Recently, the HEA circulated a document called "Employment Control Framework for the Higher Education Sector 2011-2014". This is the second such framework issued by the Department of Finance, the first having applied for the three years up to December 2010 and requiring a 6% reduction in teaching and support staff.

Employment-control frameworks, ordinarily, should have no place in a higher education system. They inevitably impact on institutional autonomy -- one of the strengths of our system. But, these are not ordinary times. An extraordinary effort is required over the next three years to bring public spending into line with revenue. The new framework should be considered against that background.

The framework covers all higher education staff, who are members of public-service pension schemes, including externally funded researchers and self-funded posts. These latter two categories were not covered previously and are covered now where they involve a future pension liability for the State.

In the case of staff, other than these two categories, there is a requirement to reduce numbers by about 1% by end 2014. While this comes on top of a 6% reduction already achieved, it is less than is required of almost all other areas of the public sector in recognition of the fact that higher education has accommodated the demand for places over the past four years.

Against a background of widespread staff reductions, the number of researchers will actually grow by at least 10%. This approach emphasises the commitment to research in national policy and should create certainty for institutions and researchers.

In the case of self-funded posts, typically staff in international offices, the framework anticipates growth of about 8%. This is in recognition of the contribution that enterprise and a greater contribution from non-exchequer sources must make to the costs of higher education.

To deal with future pension liabilities for these two categories, there is a requirement for a 20% pension contribution from research funders or employers. The implementation of this aspect, as it applies to research, will be the subject of discussions between the relevant departments.

Under the framework, the universities and colleges can now reactivate academic promotion schemes for the first time since 2008, recognising the role promotion plays in attracting high-quality people to academic careers.

The framework is a short-term measure to deal with short-term challenges. While criticism is to be expected, it is also to be expected that debate will deal with the framework on its own terms.

In difficult circumstances, reasonable efforts have been made to preserve the capacity and flexibility in institutions to manage their internal affairs, and research and resource- generating activities have been given very specific support.

The role of the HEA under the framework is one of monitoring and reporting, not prior approval of appointments. This inevitably will result in an additional administrative burden, that can and will be minimised.

We need to work through the short-term challenges collaboratively and intelligently. But, it is at least as important that we also keep our focus on the longer term and the implementation of the National Strategy for Higher Education.

Tom Boland is Chief Executive, Higher Education Authority (HEA)

Irish Independent