Ciaran Mc Kenna
Across the world debates on the role of the University are intensifying. The recent successful launch of ‘Defend the Irish University: A Charter for Action’ represents an important contribution to these debates, as well as a significant analysis of the challenges facing the public university. This initiative is especially significant as it comes from members of the SIPTU Section Committee in DCU, who are comprised of all grades of staff working in the university. As such, the following hopes to highlight why the ‘Defend the Public University’ campaign is important for all staff who work in the higher education sector.
The ‘University’ is now being required to do more work than ever before: from generating intellectual property and spin-off companies, to producing ‘job ready’ graduates; decrease reliance on state funds; and, all this while juggling expectations of social inclusion with the provision of a ‘world class’ high quality education for an ever growing student population. In addition, hopes for eventual economic recovery are being, perhaps over optimistically, pinned on a university sector that is clearly keen, despite misgivings, to contribute. So, the pressure is on for universities, and all those who work in them, to deliver results for the rest of Irish society.
While the increased tensions and pressures on academic staff in are generating much debate and discussion, there is rather less focus on what the challenges facing the public university mean for non-academic university staff. As universities try to meet several competing and often contradictory objectives, with less and less financial resources each year, it is inevitable that pressure will grow to seek ‘efficiencies’ within the systems and structures that support teaching and research.
There may be a temptation to start viewing universities are having a remit that is strictly limited to teaching and research, separate from their university support systems and structures. As a consequence, all of the support functions currently carried out by dedicated professional administrators, technical officers, librarians and others might well be viewed as, at a time of financial stringency, too costly to keep ‘in house’. Myths about top-heavy administration, which often do not stand much scrutiny, will be conscripted into pushing for two things. First, there will be demands to outsource support functions, most likely to one of the several multinational service companies who are already providing services in higher education institutions in the UK. This will, probably at a stroke, mean a serious diminution of pay and conditions for extant university support staff, if it comes to pass. Second, the skills, professionalism and knowledge base of support staff within universities, critical to their efficient function and operation, as well as the contribution that support staff make to the success of universities, could well be discounted in the rush to build a case for outsourcing. Which, given the erosion of pay and conditions since 2008, would mean an even greater undermining of morale.
It would be a serious error for academic staff to view outsourcing of support services as, in some ways, separate to the attacks currently underway on the independence of academics and on academic freedom. Efforts to undermine the position of professional support staff within the university sector, and across higher education more generally are inextricably linked with the simultaneous process of undermining the position of academic staff.
While support staff have not yet, and ‘yet’ is the key term here, been hit by the same levels of casualisation as some areas of teaching and research in universities, the ongoing Employment Control Framework has had an effect. The moratorium on permanent positions has meant an increase in temporary contracts, which will lead over time to a preponderance of temporary contracts over permanent staff. Added to that is the pernicious consequences of the ‘personal to holder’ proviso to the terms of the Haddington Road Agreement. The latter will result in the progressive segmentation of the support workforce in universities as colleagues within the same grade experience differing terms and conditions. One possible consequence of any efforts to undermine, outsource or casualise support staff would be the erosion of the knowledge base which currently ensures that public universities still function well, despite severe challenges. Indeed, the financial ‘savings’ that government Ministers and others might see in outsourcing of public university support functions will, almost certainly, be cancelled out by the costs of imposing outsourcing.
The launch of the present Charter and the ‘Defend the Public University’ initiative represents an important contribution to the process of defending the principle of retaining good working conditions for all staff working in Irish public universities. Furthermore, it represents a clear chance to demonstrate solidarity among colleagues across the sector. All of those concerned about the direction of change within the university sector should support this initiative, as the next few years will be critical to determining what kind of public university system emerges from the current economic turmoil.