Posted on behalf of Dick Ahlstrom
Efforts are underway to settle a most unusual row between Ireland’s universities and the Higher Education Authority (HEA), which has raised tensions between cabinet colleagues in the country’s new coalition government.
New powers given to the authority allow it to scrutinise any appointments made by the universities, whether the post is funded by public or by private money. More importantly it will see 20 per cent trimmed off the top of the country’s research budget, with the money withheld for future pension payments.
The university heads have already started a campaign against the proposals, part of a revised version of the Employment Control Framework (ECF) put in place by the Department of Education in 2009 as part of the government’s moratorium on public service hiring.
The revision was signed into force earlier this month by the new Minister of Education, Labour’s Ruairi Quinn. Unfortunately it triggered a firestorm of protest from the universities who claimed that its full implications had not been thought through by the minister or his department. The universities decried the powers given to the authority as “Stalanist”.
The Department of Enterprise, Jobs and Innovation, whose associated agencies fund research, also joined the fray, but employed more diplomatic terms – at least in public. The department’s minister Richard Bruton – from Fine Gael, the larger party in the governing coalition – said on 24 March that the government could not introduce a system that might restrict research activity. He was referring to ECF requirements that any appointments made, even those funded from private sources, must see 20 per cent of the gross value of any jobs created retained as a pension contribution.
The department’s assistant secretary, Martin Shanagher, adopted far harsher language in a confidential memo in which he described the ECF move as a “debacle” and one which would “penalise” research activity. He said the €250 million the department invests in research annually might see €27 million trimmed off to cover pension charges that, given the contracted nature of many research posts, would never be paid out.
The same day that Bruton raised doubts, his counterpart in the education department indicated his willingness to hear “constructive suggestions” to overcome the problem. Quinn stressed however that any pension liabilities for the Exchequer would have to be addressed.
Everyone is being friendly but tensions certainly have been raised between the two departments. The HEA also issued a Q&A type response on 24 March to “clarify” the ECF conditions. This document clearly indicated however that the 20 per cent of gross pay pension charge was to cover future liabilities.
Image: Education minister Ruairi Quinn / Wikipedia