MOST public sector workers welcomed the Croke Park Agreement, which ring fenced them against any job cuts or any further pay cuts until 2014.
They may have huffed and puffed and took elaborate and very public consultations as to whether they'd really accept this cave-in by the last Government, but the reality, of course, was that they were whispering among themselves, "this is all too good to be true, we keep our job security and the boom-sized public sector will stay just the way it was. Let's go for it, but grudgingly. Don't look a gift horse in the mouth, and all that."
But one group wasn't so sanguine, and this was the academics and third-level lecturers. Actually, make that two groups since the school teachers have also been holding out: their teaching cousins, so to speak. "Those who can't, teach," it is said, but they can make an impressive stand for their rights, perks, privileges.
But whereas the teachers' unions are motivated by a long-standing trade union militancy, the university lecturers occupy a more dreamy sense of entitlement. And less realism: the teachers' unions have already started revising their positions with the realisation that they could end up being exempt from the protection of the Croke Park deal.
Not so the university lecturers, who, with the resolve of Erasmus, Copernicus and the scholars of old, stubbornly refuse to budge on their ancient freedoms. Along with the Hunt report on higher education, the Croke Park deal proposes longer working hours and shorter holidays, tighter management control and performance-related pay. It also opens up the possibility that academics deemed to be substandard could be sacked. Which is what happens in the real world, more or less.
But this ain't the real world. The academics want to retain the right to permanency and tenure until retirement age, citing grandly that this is the "bedrock on which academic freedom rests".
At the meeting to announce their resistance, Paddy Healy, physics lecturer (and tellingly, a former president of the Teachers Union of Ireland) said academic freedom and tenure were not just "a ruse invented by academics to protect their employment" but were essential to ensuring that lecturers "cannot be dismissed for the expression of unpopular ideas". Which sounds all a bit like revolutionary Sorbonne and 1968. Does Mr Healy really believe this is why lecturers would be dismissed as opposed to just general incompetence?
He added that the right to such permanency enabled academics to pursue "blue-sky research" which sounds very nice, as well as "the study of specialised subjects" which would now allegedly be deprived of funds in favour of more "commercially driven research". Heaven forbid.
But better still was the contribution of Tom Garvin, Emeritus Professor of Politics at UCD, who attacked what he called the "thick layer of management" in third-level institutions, saying the Irish universities were now "enveloped in a great brown tide of nonsense on stilts".
Robust stuff, but it might have been more convincing if it had come from someone a bit less old style than Tom Garvin, whom many of us remember as the convivial personification of a university culture when time was unhurried and mixing with the students was as important as the harsh demands of the bean counters. A similar atmosphere at UCD's colourful history department, back then, gave us all a cosy sense that this was what university was all about.
However, college life has changed since those halcyon days, as has so much of our working culture. And yet the universities might have remained immune. But then they were hit with the abolition of third-level fees, an extraordinary indulgence, which has starved the universities of funds, just at a time when they were supposed to be paying their way and plugging into a new hi-tech world of business and everyday relevance.
The heads of third-level institutions thus had to crack the whip in terms of work practices as well as beat the drum for outside funding. And yet this hasn't stopped them taking extraordinary personal salaries out of their besieged institutions, among the very best in the public sector.
Dr Michael Murphy, the President of UCC, is on €232,151 per year, despite his college having debts of more than €10m. No wonder former education minister Batt O'Keeffe asked the seven university presidents to take a pay cut, to which they at first strongly demurred. Meanwhile, Hugh Brady, the President of UCD -- on a salary of €212,755 -- has been asked to explain how the college paid €1.6m in unauthorised bonuses to its senior staff. And you thought it was just the banking sector that carried on like this?
Granted these head guys have pulled in valuable research funding and Brady has got UCD into the world's top 100 universities. But given the €12m losses at the college, it is quite amazing to see the salaries of those around him. Eamon Drea, the Vice-President for staff, is on about €200,000, while Professor Nick Quirke, Principal of the College of Engineering, Mathematical and Physical Sciences, is on €227,659, while Tom Begley, Dean of the School of Business, is on €231,575. But best of all is Professor Des Fitzgerald, Vice-President for research, who is now on €263,602, but had been on a whopping €409,000 only two years ago.
But these pay levels are part of a wider pattern, and some would say scandal, in the Irish education service, which is the whopping rates of pay for academics and bureaucrats, especially at senior levels, when the sector is otherwise starved of funds. More than 75 per cent of the €8.59bn education budget is absorbed by pay and pensions. This means that all other education services must be funded from the remaining €2.14bn.
Meanwhile, Ireland has one of the lowest levels of education spending in the OECD, and ranks close to the bottom when it comes to spending in relation to GDP. The consequences are evident throughout the sector, with dilapidated classrooms, lack of adequate support for information technology, and meagre investment in early childhood education.
In all, more than 60 staff in the education sector earn more than €150,000, while a further 476 staff earn more than €110,000. In all, 497 people are on the professorial salary scale, €113,573-€145,952. This beggars belief in an economy that is now struggling, and an education sector that is decimated.
Worst of all is the proliferation of expensive education quangos, some of them barely known about publicly, but which pay huge salaries to those sitting on them.
What is new minister Ruairi Quinn going to do about these, if anything? And how can so many top people, in conscience, take so much money out of a struggling sector like education?
No wonder the rank-and-file academics get pissed off when the top people ask them to work a bit harder. But they too are not living in the real world, as evidenced by their call to the governing authorities "of all academic institutions to make a declaration in favour of academic freedom and to remove all threats to tenure and permanency to retirement". In reality, the same authorities have now been told to start getting those Croke Park reforms implemented, as soon as possible.
In fairness, it took an old trouper like Dr Garret FitzGerald to bring some sense to the antics of the protesting lecturers, when he urged them to "be concerned with the restoring of genuinely academic issues, leaving to the unions the business of pay and conditions".
If they were to be successful in defending academic standards, he warned his former colleagues, "it has to be done in a way that is visibly not self-interested, not concerned about pay and conditions but concerned about genuine academic freedom, about research standards and about the real academic issues."
Which is Garret code for 'get out of your ivory towers and get real. I'm an economist, and these days, you've got to pay your way'.