Thursday, 8 July 2021
Ceisteanna Eile - Other Questions
Third Level Staff
7. To ask the Minister for Education and Skills if he has engaged with the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform on the employment control framework and the increase of precarious work in higher education; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [36804/21]
Has the Minister engaged with the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform on the employment control framework and the increase in precarious work in higher education? I know he recently called for a halt to precarious part-time employment in higher education but this implies that the blame lies with the colleges. In the past, most of my questions to the Minister have been dismissed on the grounds that employment is an issue for the institutions themselves rather than for the Department but the institutions have no option but to hire staff under casual or temporary contracts in order to meet student demand, given the restrictions on them.
I hope that I have never dismissed the Deputy's questions. I have been engaging with the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform. The issue of the contractual arrangements of those working in the higher education sector is very important. I have raised it with the HEA and with those who fund research, such as the Irish Research Council and Science Foundation Ireland, because they also have a role to play. I have also discussed the issue with staff representatives and other bodies within the sector. There are many different factors giving rise to non-permanent staffing arrangements. I understand that these are a feature of many higher education and research systems. I have sought to ensure the necessary information is examined to see how the issue can best be addressed and to ensure that Ireland is best in class in this regard and certainly not an outlier when compared with other educational systems. The HEA is undertaking analysis to establish the scale of precarious employment in higher education over time, the reasons behind it and any impacts it is having on the sector. It will also make any necessary recommendations. Detailed engagement between the HEA and the employers in the sector will be critical in assessing the situation and addressing underlying issues.
With specific regard to work undertaken by PhD students, as advised in previous replies to parliamentary questions, my Department has engaged with the HEA, research funders, the Irish Universities Association, the Technological Higher Education Association and other representatives and relevant information has been compiled and examined. We have established a subgroup of the national advisory forum for Ireland's framework for doctoral education. This subgroup is now considering the matters further, including at a very recent meeting held in the last few days. The matters under consideration include existing practices and examples of national and international best practice.
In parallel, and in direct response to the question, my Department is engaged with the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform and the HEA with a view to finalising a new higher education staffing agreement. This will update the current employment control framework and give particular consideration to the different categories of staff covered, alignment with new funding streams and contractual commitments in the sector and the need for staffing decisions taken in higher education to be affordable and sustainable from the perspectives of higher education, the Exchequer and wider public service staffing and pensions. My Department will continue to interact with the sector, the HEA and the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform on these work streams to make progress in light of the employment data across the sector.
Gabhaim buíochas leis an Aire. I am glad that something appears to have been done. I know the Minister will accept that until the issue is addressed, the problem will continue. Under the employment control framework introduced in 2011, universities are prevented from hiring full-time staff over and above the existing numbers in most cases. One provision in the employment control framework means that posts funded by sources other than the Exchequer are only to be filled on a fixed-term basis. The culture report published five years ago recommended that this be deleted. Sinn Féin has no objection to the use of fixed-term contracts where there is a legitimate requirement for their use. However, we do have a concern that fixed-term contracts are being used to fill positions that should be permanent. Staffing embargoes and underfunding mean that the student-academic staff ratio is currently 20.6:1. The student-staff ratio at third level in Ireland is the fourth highest in the OECD, where the average is 16:1.
I thank the Deputy. There are really three things to say. The first thing is that, as I have said, we are engaging with the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform and the HEA with regard to that employment control framework. Of course, employment controls are needed. We all know that. There is no publicly funded agency that can hire without reference to the impact on the public sector pay bill, pensions and so on. The Deputy is not suggesting there should be. I would not be engaging if I did not accept that we need to see changes with regard to a new staffing agreement. That is the prize we are trying to obtain for the sector. That is crucial. That is one thing.
The second thing, about which the HEA was asked at a meeting of the Committee of Public Accounts on 1 July, relates to the issue of precarious employment and casualisation. Following on from that engagement between the HEA and the committee, my Department will be engaging further with the HEA to request and to undertake an analysis, including of data already to hand, and to reach definitive conclusions - which is important because there is a lot of data - regarding the overall position.
With regard to the third thing, with the indulgence of the Leas-Cheann Comhairle, I will again make reference to the subgroup of the national advisory forum for Ireland's framework for doctoral education. It is now looking at what we can do for PhD students.
I thank the Minister. I welcome that but this is something to which we need to return every time we engage in here because, until such time as this is fixed, it will have an impact, and not only on lecturers. The Minister referred to PhD students, who are really and truly exploited across the board because of the way the system is set up. We have to change the system. Will the Minister provide a timeline whereby we can see the impact of the work being done to change this?
It is not acceptable that students are working and being taught in an environment where this exploitation is happening. Moreover, on an individual level, people cannot get security in regard to family, mortgages, credit and so on because of their precarious circumstances. It is not right and it needs to be fixed.
I very much welcome an ongoing focus on this, as I know the Deputy will ensure there is. I will too, which is why I want the three work streams I have outlined, namely, the new staffing agreement with the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform; the work we have asked the HEA to do in regard to precarious employment and its prevalence and impact on our higher education system; and, crucially, to return to the issue of PhD students, our engagement with the HEA, the IUA and THEA to gather further detail on practices in the sector, particularly in regard to how this affects PhD students.
This information has been received and collated and, as I said, the subgroup of the national advisory forum for Ireland's framework for doctoral education has been established to consider the matters further, examine best practice in regard to PhD students and identify good practice in Ireland that could be more widely deployed throughout the sector. The group met on 3 March and briefly updated the overall national advisory forum on 24 June. The next steps are being considered by the group and the Department and I will be happy to keep the Deputy informed.