Restrictive Practices in Higher Education in Ireland

The Chairman of the Higher education Authority is no stranger to controversy. His most recent interesting comment came when he commented against the “restrictive work practices” of the third level, stating “There are very restrictive HR practices imposed on our higher education institutions by the fact that they are regarded as part of the public service, not much different from a government department or a local authority.” He also complained that Irish universities were not attracting enough foreign students, which seemed to be an issue caused by a lack of  “Greater collaboration and alignment between institutions”

I emailed, on Saturday afternoon, the HEA and inquired for specifics on these restrictive work practices. My contract, and I think every other academic, states that I will, in effect, do what I am told to do by the head of school. My duties are not specified beyond engaging in teaching as directed, carrying out research and doing such administrative duties as are assigned. It would be hard to find a more open contract than one that says “do what, where, when, for how long as, and in what manner as your boss shall dictate. End of”.  I imagine Ericcson, from whence Mr Boland hails, would be ad idem with every other company in welcoming such an open-ended specification of duties.

The HEA contacted me on Monday, with a copy of the speech (HECA J Hennessy Key Note Speech 20 April 2012 (2) (1)) and then on Wednesday kindly followed up with details of the “restrictive work practices”. I was interested to read these as I was worried that my work practices were in some way restrictive… I need not have. For the most part these are legislative, HEA driven or organizational, rather than actions carried out or not by academics.

Workload management

The Higher Education Strategy calls for a comprehensive review of existing employment contracts. It looks for contracts that are transparent and deliver accountability for appropriate workload allocation models to ensure that priorities around teaching and learning, research and administration can be managed and delivered. In relation to institutes of technology, it says that contracts should specify a minimum number of hours to be delivered on an annualised basis. Currently, the contracts in institutes of technology provide the delivery of 630 hours by assistant lecturers (560 by lecturers) over 35 weeks with a norm of 18 (16) hours per week. Because of circulars restricting the length of the academic year as well as developments such as semesterisation, the 35 weeks are never delivered. Recent agreements under Croke Park have focussed on increasing the amount of delivery per week, a less optimal approach than adopting a broader concept of the academic year.

Consideration could be given to the adoption of an annualised credit-based contract based around the current 630/560 requirements. An hour of lecturing would remain equivalent to one credit under this system but credit could then be given for other academic activities such as research, supervision of PhDs, engagement with business etc. Such a flexible approach would allow Institute management to determine credits for various activities across the differing demands across teaching Levels 6-10 as well as across the differing demands in terms of research and other academic activity. Any new contract arrangements should also provide for a level of academic and other duties – administration, management, course development, promotion of the Institute, engagement with stakeholders etc. – that form part of the normal duties of a lecturer and do not attract credits. Finally, it will be important that the contracts also state clearly what is expected in terms of attendance and the entitlements of staff in relation to annual leave.

This is strange. Lets leave aside the emphasis on institutes of technology and the equating of these with the entirety of the higher education space. As I have noted, my contract doesn’t say anything about hours or whatever. It says “do your job”. The problem with overspecifing what knowledge workers will and will not do is that they are generally smart people and will easily game the system. There is a substantial body of academic and practical research on how to ensure work gets done. Universities are not machine bureaucracies, which work by the enforcement of control. They, like all adhocracies or matrix organizations, work best when coordination and control is by the adherence to professional norms. It might be best for the HEA to contemplate how they could best set these, rather than ever-incremental micromanagement. We have a first year university course that discusses these issues and I am happy to forward the notes. They are perhaps adhocracies or As we know Irish academics work approx. 50h per week on average. Over say 48 weeks (I know its shocking that public servants will take holidays…you cant get good staff these days) that amounts to 2400h per annum.  CSO data suggest that the average weekly paid hours across the economy is approx. 32h per week. That’s just over 1500h. Restrictive work practices seem to have resulted in this sector providing a premium in terms of output of some 50%. But that’s not the real issue. The real problem is the equation of hours spent in the classroom with hours worked. That such arrant nonsense could come from the head of the government body charged with the management of higher education should be a cause of huge concern. Despite the many real issues in Irish higher education we still manage to have substantial impact on the world stage with several world class universities. By all means let me work 32h instead of 50 plus….


While in the sector, HEIs have considerable freedom to hire staff (subject to ECF), their capacity to make staff redundant, even where there is manifestly no work for them, does not exist.  In the institutes of technology, for instance, if staff cannot be usefully deployed due to the collapse in apprenticeship, they cannot be made redundant.  Any effort to improve efficiency by reducing unnecessary duplication of programmes across the HE sector will be rendered pointless unless a capacity for targeted redundancy is provided.  The same goes for efficiencies that could arise due to mergers of HEIs.  A capacity for targeted redundancy schemes is required.

Hire staff subject to the ECF …apart from that Mrs Lincoln, how was the play…

Again we see the IoT = all fallacy. Lets leave aside the issue of whether the government body charged with overseeing higher education might better serve society by ensuring that it works to see that apprenticeships are strengthened (Germany anyone?) rather than destroying the seed corn of future such. Today apprenticeships, tomorrow…? What market demand is there for Latin, or poetry, or for philosophy or for sociology? The higher education sector is not and cannot be simply a tool for the creation of what the HEA or industry think might be employable in three or five years time.  Since at least Newman we have known this. There is an ongoing and lively debate on how to recast this ideal but that universities play more than just a training role is surely something that the HEA might acknowledge. There is also a strange sense of competition being bad. I always thought competition, for students and ideas no less than for bread rolls, ensured that the customer or person to whom the service was provided got a better outcome. The locgical conclusion of the drive to reduce choice is silod universities, where for example UCD teaches economics and say TCD philosophy while Maynooth does Sociology. The concept of students and researchers crossing what are at best arbitrary intellectual boundaries seems anathema to the HEA. It reflects a desire for monopoly provision of education – economics 101 tells us that monopolies are always inefficient, even if they are natural monopolies, which is not at all obvious for the provision of educational programs.

Contractual matters

Particular problems are created by the way in which Ireland has transposed EU employment Directives.  Under current legislation part-time employees or those on temporary contracts can too easily acquire rights akin to permanent staff, including contracts of indefinite duration (CID).  This is particularly dangerous in a situation where HEIs are forced to rely on part time and short term contract staff. It is accepted that the HEIs have a responsibility here to ensure that contractual terms are appropriate, but in the IoT sector there is a view that they are precluded from issuing the kind of contract that would avoid a CID situation, since the form of contracts has to be agreed with unions who in turn agree these with the Department of Education and Skills.  A review of the inflexibilities generated by employment legislation, followed by legislative amendment,  is urgently needed.

Again the equation of IoT’s with the entirety of higher education…..While this may well be the case the use of the phrase “too easily acquire rights” is unfortunate to say the least. This seems to be a drive towards casualization and a backdoor abolition of not just tenure but permanency. I guess in the brave new world the HEA sees the provision of higher education as a purely market driven force, where they determine the course to be offered and organizations bid to provide same with staff hired only as and when needed. Perhaps we could organize hiring fairs or maybe the old concept of An Spailpín Fánach can be reinvigorated where gangs of underemployed Python coders and French romantic poetry specialists can hang around outside universities waving their credentials? There are of course situations where contracts are a good idea. But to create a university system where this is the norm is self defeating.  Like it or not we are in a globalized market and the market for academic talent is no different. We are now in a situation where even if a post is created it is probably going to be offered at the lowest point of the scale, which is generally now below that of comparable scales in other countries. Combine this with a total lack of job security and we will find it impossible to compete, which is in the end going to result in a poorer society in every way.


At present pay is set by government and, except in the case of the Departures Framework for universities, all HEIs must comply with pay terms nationally negotiated.  Currently, the Department of Finance, through the Department Education and Skills, plays a direct role in the establishment of salary scales, terms and conditions, appointment points on the scales, numbers of staff etc.   In the past, when time has allowed, it has been usual that negotiations have four players viz DoES, DoF, unions and ‘the employers’.  At the best of times these arrangements have been unsatisfactory in that the negotiations have been centralised and agreements are centralised, consequently much time, particularly in the IoT sector, has been spent fighting cases at local level.  In recent times, as a direct result of the economic crisis agreements have been entered into without understanding the impact that these agreements have on the functioning education (see further below).

While the HEIs do not seek complete freedom in this matter, flexibility is required to enable them to manage their workforce and their performance more effectively. HE needs a much more sophisticated architecture that is linked to both the strategic needs of institutions and their evolving structures. That architecture has to have greater flexibility and with that a series of checks and balances to underpin the flexibility.   An approach which involved freedom to pay staff within bands combined with a requirement of balance between grades (as in the current ECF) would meet many of the difficulties here.

Again the IoT seems to be driving the debate. It might be useful if the HEA clarified that they are even aware that there are two higher education systems and that no more than one size fits all the same issues do not nescessarily arise in both. The issue if there is one with Irish university pay is that it has a high mean but a low variance.  It is good to see that the HEA are beginning to suggest that this be addressed. But it is limited – why not allow managers in universities to manage? Why not let them determine, within the resources available, the pay of people. There is a market for academic labor and this should be used to signal the wages.  I would much rather we paid the most productive more than the least.

General – Management Capacity to Manage New Contractual Arrangements

 It is generally agreed that managing change in the Irish public sector is challenging.  If, as proposed above, new contractual arrangements are entered into then there will be significant challenges to middle managers in Irish HEI’s to manage those changes.  In order to do this successfully will require a much strengthened approach to PMDS, the recruitment and appointment of heads of department, deans, etc who have both academic and managerial competence.  While some institutions have developed or are developing robust systems of appointment and leadership and development to ensure management competence, anecdotally the HE system seems only patchily prepared for these changes.

This is hard to argue with in one way, stating that managers should be competent to manage. But they must also be free to manage. At present there is a widespread perception that the HEA are micro managerial zealots, desirous of interference at the lowest operational levels rather than confining themselves to policy. This may be unfair but it does exist. There is nothing wrong in principle with professional managers in universities but again there is absent from this statement an acknowledgement that knowledge workers in public or private sectors require a different style of management to other workers. Such is neither good nor bad but a fact of organizational life. There is a reason that Facebook, Google etc provide beer, Ping-Pong tables and so on and its not because the flinty eyed billionaires that run them are necessarily inherently nice people, although they may well be. Its because that approach works in that organizational space.


11 thoughts on “Restrictive Practices in Higher Education in Ireland

  1. Pingback: Ninth Level Ireland » Blog Archive » Restrictive Practices in Higher Education in Ireland

  2. Pingback: Restrictive Practices in Higher Education in Ireland | Brian M. Lucey | Education

  3. Ernie Ball

    I agree with almost all of this, except for the part where you refer to the “most productive” as deserving of higher rewards. Define “productive” in an academic context please, bearing in mind that in virtually everything we do, only quality matters.

    I would add that not only is the HEA made up of micromanagerial zealots, it is also made up of poorly-educated and semi-literate morons who have no sense whatever of the ideas and history out of which the idea of the university arises. They know nothing of the university’s historical purposes or the reasons for many of its practices. Instead, they see business as the master science and only possible way of conceiving and organising the world, rather than one way that should have its own, very limited, place within the university.

  4. Eoghan

    Brian slightly typo with names John Hennessy (ex-ericsson, above photo) is the chair of the HEA, Tom Boland is the chief executive, otherwise interesting article

  5. Mike Lyons

    My impression is that much of the attention of the HEA is focused on problems associated with the IOT sector. It is very unwise to adopt a one size fits all approach when it comes to policy development. We have a binary sector. Even within each partition there are different challenges to face in different HEI’s. A far more nuanced approach is required here and unfortunately the HEA don’t appear to understand this.

  6. cormac

    It reads very much as if it is aimed at the IoTs. In that context, many of the suggestions seem sensible to me
    1. Our contact hours are currently shoehorned into 12 week semesters, It makes very little sense as there is almost no time for anything except teaching and prep during the term, longer terms would be better
    2. Teaching credits for academic activity would be nice – I am in the office until 9 pm 4 days a week trying to keep up with U colleagues
    3. He’s dead right on the contracts – we have had a lot of staff in by the back door (temp turning to wholetime) while highly qualified staff could not get in

  7. Pingback: Do you want the Civil Service to run Universities? | Brian M. Lucey

  8. Brian Mulligan

    “Properly” is where a lecturer enables a student to learn effectively and efficiently. When i attended UCD in the seventies my personal observation was that about two thirds of the teaching was poor (some very poor) relative to the other teaching (and that was not that great either). Students report similar ineffective teaching today. They have no idea how to prove this to management or how to initiate action to fix it. I work within the system and I also have no idea how it can be done either.


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