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In My Opinion: Universities must treat their researchers with the same respect as research itself

Research and development is the lifeblood of any economy, society or institution. Encouraging the exploration of new theories, procedure and practice in our schools and colleges will play an essential role in any effort to find solutions to our current economic plight and return our communities to prosperity.

It is strange, then, that the thousands of people employed in research in our third-level institutions are, by and large, accorded little recognition or status. The concept of 'research' itself may be king, but 'researchers' are increasingly treated more like the 'serfs' of our education system.

An estimated 4,000 researchers are employed, the vast majority on non-permanent contracts. This situation is having a negative impact on the morale of many people working in research in our universities. It acts as a major disincentive to school-goers and school-leavers considering a career as researchers in areas like science, technology, humanities and other important sectors of the economy.

The problem is significant if largely hidden from public view until now. In recent years, hundreds of non-unionised employees, most of them young researchers, have been made redundant by Irish universities.

Our State repeatedly pays lip service to research as being one of our primary national priorities, yet the people who do the actual research are being increasingly treated with a lack of respect.

The situation is a repeat of the problems that emerged during the 1980s and 1990s, when many thousands of employees in both the public and private sectors suffered years of insecurity of employment because they were employed on temporary contracts which kept being rolled over.

That problem was solved by a European directive that led to the Protection of Employees (Fixed-Term Work) Act in 2003.

We are now, however, seeing attempts to undermine our own Irish law regarding fixed-term employees. This is happening in Irish universities with, at a minimum, the tacit support and collusion of the Department of Education. Thousands of employees who, despite often having significant years of service, are living under a constant threat of dismissal when what are termed 'indefinite contracts' expire.

One university -- University College Cork (UCC) -- recently pursued a case all the way to the High Court to seek to overturn a legal order granting equal treatment to a temporary worker under the 2003 Act. The High Court rejected UCC's plea, but not before the university spent tens of thousands of taxpayers' money in taking the case. The specific case in question involved a female employee on maternity leave.

Our universities cannot, on the one hand, emphasise their commitment to the central importance of 'research' for their own and the country's future development while, at the same time, seek to tread on the rights of the very people whom they expect to deliver the research outcomes required.

Mike Jennings is general secretary of the Irish Federation of University Teachers (IFUT)

Irish Independent