SPEAKING FROM GROUND ZERO of third level education in Ireland, I can categorically and unequivocally state the Ireland's Higher Education Authority's Employment Contract Framework (ECF) is undermining the capability of well-intentioned staff to develop and prepare relevant course materials for delivery to students. I can say this on my blog and return to my work in Tipperary Institute knowing that my voice is just a tiny peep in the cacophony of cutbacks engineered by the meltdown regime that were turfed out of office during General Election 2011. In my humble opinion, the ECF should be part of the technical talks imposed by the IMF and the framework should be set aside. It is toxic and it has already affected the ability of my colleagues to plan and program for the next academic year. This means a reduction in the quality of academic services for the incoming cohort of students. Said another way, the ECF ensures that across Ireland, what is advertised as a third level education in brochures, on websites and in CAO forms will not be what is delivered in the classrooms. The ECF effectively sets out a structure to scam students in their expectations of quality third level education. For this reason alone, the ECF needs to receive a high level budgetary review.
As Ruairí Quinn already knows from his Education Adviser John Walshe, employment-control frameworks, ordinarily have no place in a higher education system. As Walshe told the Irish Independent, they inevitably impact on institutional autonomy -- one of the strengths of the Irish higher education system.
The biggest rub that affects my quality of work is that externally funded researchers and self-funded posts are woven into ECF constraints. On our own back in Tipperary Institute, we could go out, flog our skillsets, win European and national tenders, and employ people best qualified to extend our research or to backfill positions on the academic schedule. That won't be legal now. And that means we will compromise the quality of delivering in several academic modules that I teach as we service those previously-won contracts. Students will still acquire a third level education but it will be at a lower level of skill and finishing than before. This is the choice of the Irish government, as imposed by the ECF.
Then there's the issue of dumbing down Tipperary. There are well-articulated plans afoot to increase the number of post-graduate researchers in South Tipperary. In fact, we could easily grow the number of our researchers by 20%, meeting our commitment to research in national policy and to the strategic plan of the South Tipperary County Council. That simply isn't going to happen between now and 2014 because of the ECF.
These are difficult times. I'm looking into a prism of summertime preparation for two new Level 8 programmes that were approved before the ECF. My timetabled weekly teaching hours are above 20 at the moment. Two days of each week are timetabled for teaching or tutorials from 1100 until 1500 with no break except to hit the loo during room changes. I can hold that pace but I wonder if anyone in the IMF or the HEA is subject to the same conditions of employment. If they are, then I've no complaint.
I recognise the difficult circumstances Ireland now faces. But I also see the compromise in services and working conditions that come on the foot of the ECF. As a player, I have already figured out ways to generate additional income for the institution. But unless some form of administrative or lecturing help is directed to the trenches where I work to deliver frontline services, I will need to cut my cloth to fit and that means reducing research, resources and contact time for students.
My focus remains on the longer term goal of educating students to join a productive workforce in Ireland where they can pay taxes to offset the cost of my pension (much of it already flushed away by the government into the banking black hole). For my own peace of mind, I'm sticking with the plan to do my best to balance my workload. Things would be a whole lot easier--and academic standards more likely to be embellished--if the Employment Contract Framework was significantly amended.
And the Irish Independent might agree.