Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees

Tuesday, 13 July 2021

Joint Oireachtas Committee on Education and Skills

General Scheme of the Higher Education Authority Bill 2021: Discussion (Resumed)

Ms Joan Donegan:

I thank the Deputy. Primary research would be seen as a kind of curiosity-driven science where we are talking about original research. This would be more around the direction of the researcher rather than it being directed to the researcher to conduct such research. Section 12 (a) of the Universities Act 1997, which is something that is very important to Irish Federation of University Teachers, IFUT, talks about “advancing knowledge”. We have seen in recent years, particularly in the last ten years, that that connection and alignment with business interests has become very competitive, marketised and linked to industry and growth. This is limiting innovation and those ideas and concepts that we talked about earlier. There is a sense from academics that it can be just for short-term business interests which, when we look at university as a place of knowledge, takes away from that primary research which should be as special as the applied research. We can see that being chipped away and we are concerned about it.

On the plight of researchers, this is a calling action. As a trade union official and general secretary of IFUT it pains me to see that in the number of years I have been working in IFUT that this situation has not improved. If anything, it is getting worse. We have students and post-doctoral graduates coming into our universities who are very well qualified and on appalling terms of conditions of employment. We have recently had this new research career framework which the universities and the Irish Universities Association have signed up to, which more or less talks about seven stages throughout their time where a post-doctoral graduate comes into a university. It could be four contracts, if one was talking about four years each, which would be a total of 16 years and ends then with termination. Where else would one see that in any other employment? What does that mean for the universities? They are losing their talent and the best people, apart from the exploitation of the talents of those people. This is a very significant concern.

I will draw the attention of the joint committee to what happens to lecturers in our universities. We saw in the independent expert group Cush Report in 2016 the recommendation that after two years if universities still needed lecturers, they should be employed on permanent contracts. Here we have the shocking situation where we can have a researcher in a university for a period of 16 years and their contract will terminate. That is the awful situation that exists for our researchers in universities.