Seanad debates

Wednesday, 24 May 2023

10:30 am

Photo of Mark DalyMark Daly (Fianna Fail)
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I thank Senator Higgins for bringing forward the motion and for the briefing she gave earlier, which was very informative. She outlined many of the circumstances some members of our universities and their staff face. She pointed out that some of them are paid in book tokens, which I am sure they would prefer not to be. I thank her for using the Seanad reform initiative to highlight a very important topic.

Photo of Alice-Mary HigginsAlice-Mary Higgins (Independent)
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I move:

“That Seanad Éireann: recognises:
- the important contribution of lecturers, postdoctoral researchers and PhD researchers to teaching and research in our universities and higher education institutions;

- that without such a contribution our universities and higher education institutions would not function;

- education is a public good and should be treated as such;

- education and research have a vital role in addressing the most pressing environmental and social challenges in our society and must be supported to do so;

- opportunities to engage in teaching or research should be supported by the State in order to develop research and knowledge in the arts, humanities and social sciences as well as in science, engineering, mathematics and technology;
notes with concern that:
- in recent years over 11,200 lecturers have been employed by universities and higher education institutions on a temporary or casual basis;

- many staff are employed on fixed-term contracts leaving them in highly precarious financial situations;

- many contracts are often only offered for the duration of an academic year and staff are left with uncertainty as to whether they will be renewed;

- staff employed on Contracts of Indefinite Duration often lack a clear pathway for career progression and, depending on the exact contract, can also face regular periods of unemployment;

- individuals who are on such contracts may be required to seek alternative employment or utilise social welfare for the summer months;

- PhD and postdoctoral researchers are often paid hourly rates for teaching, often not taking into account the extensive preparatory work needed to teach;

- staff on hourly contracts are not entitled to maternity benefit, parental leave, sick leave or other employment rights and protections under employment legislation;

- PhD researchers are not recognised as employees and thus are not entitled to employment rights and protections under relevant legislation and furthermore are disadvantaged in respect of pensions as they do not make pay-related social insurance (PRSI) contributions;

- staff on such contracts are not within public sector pay agreements and thus do not receive the salary increases applied to other public sector workers;

- many staff spend a long number of years on such contracts and are not offered opportunities for career progression;

- due to the high levels of precarity within academia:

- many staff are, or are considering, leaving the sector altogether;

- our higher education institutions national and international reputations for excellence in teaching and research are being undermined;

- students’ education is being negatively affected;

- academic freedom, critical thinking, innovation and the ability of researchers to engage in long-term or frontier research is being undermined;

- the low-pay experienced across the sector is intersecting with the cost-of-living crisis and the housing crisis, in particular, is impacting on lecturers, postdoctoral researchers and PhD researchers’ ability to stay and work in Ireland;

- there is overreliance on private funding of research and public-private partnerships to fund and develop research;
- that the Employment Control Framework introduced by the Government has capped the number of permanent staff that higher education institutions can employ;

- the 2018 TASC Report entitled ‘Living with Uncertainty: The Social implications of Precarious Work’;

- the 2016 Report of the Expert Group on the Future Funding for Higher Education;

- the 2016 Report of the Expert Group on Fixed-Term and Part-Time Employment in Lecturing in Third-Level Education in Ireland;
calls on the Government to:
- urgently engage with representative organisations of lecturers, postdoctoral and PhD researchers in order to begin to address this systemic issue;

- revise the Employment Control Framework in order to allow higher education institutions to offer permanent contracts to the large numbers of individuals on precarious contracts;

- engage with the Higher Education Authority, universities and higher education institutions, trade unions and other worker representative organisations to develop regulations around the use of fixed-term and part-time contracts and contracts of indefinite duration;

- introduce regulations or legislate to ensure that all persons employed to teach in higher education institutions earn a living wage at a minimum;

- in the medium-term, introduce regulations or legislate to end the widespread use of hourly contracts for teaching in universities and higher education institutions;

- recognise PhD researchers as employees so that they are entitled to relevant legislative employment rights and protections, including maternity benefit, parental leave and sick leave and PRSI contributions;

- work with relevant stakeholders to develop a tangible plan to end precarity in higher education;

- invest in public research and public-public partnerships for research, including frontier research.”

Photo of Michael McDowellMichael McDowell (Independent)
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I second the motion.

Photo of Alice-Mary HigginsAlice-Mary Higgins (Independent)
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I am sharing time with Senator McDowell.

These important initiatives and debates allow us to look a little deeper and go a bit wider on important topics. In this case, the motion relates to an issue that affects all our higher education institutions and universities, which Senators McDowell and Mullen and I represent. I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Niall Collins, to the House. I regret that the Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science is not here given that he previously gave some commitments to addressing this issue when we debated the Higher Education Authority Bill last year. I am sure the Minister of State will pass on the concerns we raise.

I thank my colleagues on the National University of Ireland panel, namely, Senators McDowell and Mullen, for agreeing to and supporting the motion. The motion also has the support of the University of Dublin panel Senators, namely, Senators Ruane, Norris and Clonan. Importantly, I welcome also the support we have received for the motion from the Irish Federation of University Teachers, the Irish Precarity Network, the Postgraduate Workers Organisation and the Union of Students in Ireland. It gives a sense of the breadth of support for highlighting the issue and the broad demand for action on the issue. It comes from every level within our university communities.

The motion seeks to highlight and address the systemic and widespread issue of precarious workplace conditions in our higher education institutions. I was reminded at the briefing of the 2018 report, which I launched and wrote a foreword for, by the Think-tank for Action on Social Change, TASC, called Living with Uncertainty: The Social Implications of Precarious Work. At the time, I was engaging with that issue because I had been looking at insecure conditions in the hospitality sector, and we were very aware of the prevalence of insecure contracts throughout that sector. It was interesting that in the 2018 report, higher education was identified as an area of accelerating and escalating insecurity in which precarious practices were being embedded and spreading. In my foreword at that time to the report, I wrote:

It seems that insecure contracts have become prevalent in the very spaces relied on to analyse and examine the employment landscape. It would certainly be worrying if such practices were ever to chill the intellectual challenge and critique which policy makers such as myself welcome and rely on when shaping new policy solutions.

Those who can analyse the trends within our society are themselves subject to these insecure conditions.

Unfortunately, in the years since then, the issue has not improved. In contrast to what we might have expected in the past, when there was a ladder of progression, an old tenure track on which people could move forth in their university careers or a myth that if they just stayed with it, they would continue to progress, we have actually seen the opposite, namely, a slippery slope where conditions are deteriorating. What we heard at the briefing and I have identified in the motion is the extraordinary spread of insecure contracts and the fact it slides all the way down. For example, reporting from Noteworthy has demonstrated that an average of 11,200 lecturers have been working on a temporary or casual basis in recent years in universities and institutes of technology. We also heard today that we are moving from those circumstances of insecure and temporary contracts, in many cases fixed-term contracts that apply only during academic term time, do not allow for any research work and mean that many of those on the contracts are forced each summer to lose their employment to seek social welfare payments and have the insecurity of not knowing whether or how they may be employed the following September. This means no continuity of contract builds up and people do not build up towards permanent status, and it creates incredible uncertainty including, as we have heard, in cases where persons will lose their housing because it is very difficult to get a lease or housing without a permanent contract. It is very difficult to move forward in any aspect of life when you can point only to an eight- or nine-month contract.

What we heard since that research is that we are not looking just at the fact a progression path is not there for full staff or just at temporary contracts for part of the year. In fact, some of those who have been on an endless cycle of short-term contracts that end each May are now being told this May or June that they may not have a contract in September because an even more insecure form of contract is being favoured. This is what has been described as almost a gig economy version of lecturing, where persons are being hired to lecture hourly. Contracts that were meant to be special-purpose contracts, such as for a visiting lecturer who comes to give an expert perspective on black holes or 19th-century Italian dance and may appear occasionally, are now being misused as contracts to say the standard teaching on core courses will be done on an hour-by-hour basis by lecturers hired on that basis. Crucially, of course, when that happens, they are not having time allocated for marking, the developing of courses, research and any of the other work that goes into good academic practice, good intellectual work and the kind of quality we need from our institutions.

When we follow the track along, we see also the circumstances faced by postgraduate workers and students. Again, a lack of recognition of employee status deeply disadvantages them not solely when they are undertaking their PhD but also in years to come.Having a five-year or seven-year period in which no PRSI contributions are made, and relevant employment protections and rights such as maternity leave, parental leave or sick leave are denied, can lead to long-term disadvantage not just in the gaps in pension contributions but also in the gaps in access to other social supports. Interestingly, it has been highlighted to me that this is also a gender issue, right through from university lecturer level to postgraduate worker level, because not being able to access supports like maternity leave has an effect on who can afford to remain. International students, some of whom are women, face a double layer of disadvantage regarding these issues. For many people, including extraordinary candidates, continuing or completing a PhD becomes unaffordable or unmanageable. As they are not represented as workers, the power imbalance is so extraordinary that they cannot even be properly represented by unions.

In those situations, it is important to note that it is not solely the individuals affected who lose out. Our institutions lose out in terms of their credibility and the quality of the thinking and the work that happens. The students lose out in terms of the continuity of the work and the continuity and quality of education. Society loses out because when we have these kinds of insecure contracts and practices, we do not have the kind of diversity we need within our institutions. The dangers of groupthink become a problem. We lose out when we look to the role our universities can and should be playing in terms of the public good and in terms of developing solutions to the collective problems we all face as a society.

Many more issues could have been listed in this motion. The Cush report, the committee on further and higher education, and others have all called for this to be addressed. To conclude, I want to emphasise briefly the very clear calls to action: engagement with the representative organisations of lecturers, postdoctoral and PhD researchers; regulations and legislation to ensure all persons employed to teach in higher educational institutions earn a living wage, are recognised as employees and are entitled to the relevant benefits; revision, though abolition would be better, of the employment control framework, which has limited universities' capacity to move forward and accurately and appropriately recognise and support staff and hire people in the long term; and a vision in terms of the institutions' transformative role in education. This comes at a time when the Minister of State will be aware of proposals in research and innovation that are coming. This is how trust can be built within the university community.

Photo of Michael McDowellMichael McDowell (Independent)
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I welcome the Minister of State this evening. I welcome the Leas-Chathaoirleach's initiative in establishing sectoral debates for the various university panels. I compliment Senator Higgins on taking the initiative with this particular motion. There is now considerable publicity about the plight of postdoctoral students and the fact they are effectively being exploited by the universities in terms of permanence and pay.

I want to deal with a slightly different issue, which is the issue of academic independence. A large number of people are now bring employed on five-year contracts or three-year contracts, etc., and on terms which might not be well known. Even if during a five-year period they produce three articles in leading journals of research in addition to their lecturing duties, at the end of that period they are not guaranteed anything. They can just be told "thank you and goodnight" and that is the end of them; they are gone. Their job is just gone under current employment law. This is not a new issue because in the 1960s when my uncle by marriage, Michael Tierney, was president of University College Dublin, UCD, there was a huge controversy in this House about the abuse of temporary status for lecturers and its implications for academic independence. A lecturer who is four years into their term cannot really be academically independent if they know that the dean of their faculty can say "thank you for all your efforts, but goodnight".

When these matters were discussed in this House on that occasion, a committee of visitation to the National University of Ireland was appointed to examine the use or abuse of temporary lectureships for staff and its implications for their independence. One of those who made a complaint at the time was John Kenny, who was a lecturer at the law faculty in UCD and later became a Supreme Court judge. The issue I am raising is that people are making life-or-death decisions about younger academics and imposing on them conditions of employment which they do not, cannot and did not comply with themselves to get to where they are. They are now in a position to effectively say to somebody after five years service in a university "thank you, you were a very interesting member of staff but you are gone now". That is wholly wrong. This needs to be considered by the Government. It is an abuse of people. I am not just talking about PhD students; I am talking about young lecturers being denied tenure and a career path. They are effectively in a position where they cannot borrow from banks and building societies because they could be thrown onto the side of the road.

The last thing I will say, as someone who is totally in favour of research, is that due to the manic interest in complying with international indices we are losing sight of the capacity of people to educate students. People with poor English and communications skills are getting jobs simply on the basis of their research record or potential. If we are to keep up standards in universities, that is fine. I am fully in favour of satisfying international indices on research. University lecturers, professors and assistant professors are there to educate as well as to research. It is a combination of two skills. Nobody should be treated as badly as the lecturers who are now on temporary contracts are being treated. As I have said, at the end of five years they are treated as entirely disposable and they face career-changing ends to their employment, with no redress whatsoever. For the last 100 years and more, since the establishment of the National University of Ireland, NUI, and Trinity College Dublin, the idea of tenure and academic independence was something the Irish State cherished and sought to protect.

Photo of Malcolm ByrneMalcolm Byrne (Fianna Fail)
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Cuirim fáilte roimh an Aire Stáit. I thank the NUI Senators for putting forward this motion. I agree with the broad premise of the points being made. We should be working towards having the best higher education system in the world, and one that meets quite a number of purposes. The only way we can do that is by having top-class lecturers and researchers. The two concepts are not mutually exclusive, as long as we have the necessary supports in place. I would be quite happy to have a debate with Senator McDowell on the slavish following of some of the international metrics, league tables and so on that we sometimes see. This runs through the education system more generally, and not just in higher education. It is important. There is a challenge to institutions to have more regard to someone's lecturing ability when appointments are being made, so that they are not purely made on the basis of research. That is a broader debate.

I am happy the Government is not opposing this motion. There are very serious concerns here. Any young emerging academic should have certainty, should have a career path in front of them and should be supported during that period. It is important to recognise that universities are autonomous institutions and that there are times when it is appropriate that there be short-term contracts, fixed-term cover and so on. This must be respected, but the difficulty is that such solutions are being used in the system to far too great an extent currently. That is a challenge.

I am aware that there is a Government review - the Minister of State and I have spoken about it - of State support for researchers, including postdoctoral researchers. In parallel with the forthcoming research legislation, this review should underpin how we support PhD candidates, postdoctoral researchers and early stage lecturers. This is about a broader question. For a long time, our country's economic success has been based on tax and talent. We are not going to be competing on tax anymore and we are increasingly going to be competing on talent. Providing support to talent is the reason the Department of Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science was established. The only way we will ensure we have a continuous pool of talent is by having good early stage researchers and lecturers, but those guarantees are not there within the system currently.

It must be acknowledged that there has been a significant investment in additional staff in our universities, but I am concerned that too many of those additional staff are being sourced through short-term and precarious contracts. That should not be the case. This is not just a question of pay and conditions. It is also a question of the environment in which many of those staff have to operate. I have spoken previously of my concern about access to research equipment, in particular basic research equipment. That approximately half of research equipment in universities is over ten years old and a third is over 15 years old is deeply concerning. If we are trying to have the best people at the early stages of their academic careers, they must have certainty and the right equipment with which to work.

I welcome the motion. There are opportunities to address many of the challenges that it lays out, but as a matter of urgency and for the benefit of the individuals concerned and, more broadly, for Ireland as a society and an economy, it is critical that we act shortly.

Photo of Aisling DolanAisling Dolan (Fine Gael)
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I thank the Senators for tabling this motion. It is a concern that is shared by all groups, particularly in government, including the Minister of State and the Minister, Deputy Harris.

What is great about our third level system is the flow of knowledge from our universities into society, industry, hospitals and the public sector. This continuous flow makes our universities a thriving ecosystem. From working in a university, the engagement I have seen in recent years is placing universities at the heart of our communities in our cities, towns and villages through the work being done by universities' teaching staff and also by researchers and research groups that engage with communities across the country. No longer are universities these stand-alone places with high walls that keep information locked up inside like the monasteries of old. That perception of universities has changed in recent decades. It is important to note that this vibrant, thriving and open system is one of the key components of success for the third level and for us.

There are many challenges, though. I have been a researcher on a fixed-term contract and a number of other contract types. I have also worked on the administrative side through the research offices of universities, so I have seen the issue from many different angles. There are serious challenges that I would like to see the Government rectify by providing additional funding and reducing our student-lecturer ratios.

When I was in school and going to college way back, there was a forced brain drain out of the country and you learned about emigration, not immigration. Having worked in the research office, I have seen the access that universities have to non-Exchequer funding. I have been fortunate to work as a project manager on the Horizon 2020 programme, which was EU funding. I have had the chance to work on a number of other programmes as well. These types of programme make it possible for third level institutions to hire people outside the employment control framework. That framework will be under review, and it needs to be, as it affects student and staff numbers and the courses we want to deliver at third level, but it is also important to note that access to non-Exchequer funding – EU, US and other international funding – is bringing much to Ireland and allowing universities to employ more people. Some of that funding is awarded for four, five or six years. Many of our researchers are now coming from abroad. It is very international. Nearly 20% of Galway's population is international. Much of that is down to people working in the university as well as in the healthcare system.

I will briefly highlight a few points. I apologise, as I only have eight seconds left. There is a focus on the review of State's supports for PhDs. Non-Exchequer funding is important. I would like the Minister of State to explore the international comparisons with other universities in his response. It is important that we examine contracts not just on the research and teaching sides, but on the administrative side as well. Putting supports in place on the administrative side is crucial. There has been Government engagement with the higher education institutions, HEIs, via staff representatives and stakeholders. I hope that there will be outcomes from that. I also hope that the review will cover PhD supports. A tenet of the research and innovation Bill should relate to the researcher career framework. The Minister of State might comment on this point.

Photo of Paul GavanPaul Gavan (Sinn Fein)
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I congratulate the National University of Ireland panel Senators on tabling this important motion. I also welcome our friends in the Gallery.

I will start with a quote from Dr. Ingrid Holme, adjunct research fellow in sociology at UCD, because it struck me as being powerful. She stated:

I've never settled down. You can end up not having a family. I don't have pets – I foster – as you just don't know if you're going to be around or not.... I'm 45 and there's no way I'm going to get a mortgage on a house. That's not going to happen.

How did it come to this? I want a serious answer to that question. Let us be frank – you do not end up with 11,200 lecturers on short-term contracts by accident. It is not some kind of natural phenomenon that occurs from time to time. We have so many lecturers on temporary contracts because political decisions were made by this and previous Governments. It has been happening for decades, but it has grown considerably worse in the past 15 years. I knew it was bad, but I did not realise the number was 11,200. That is disgraceful. Surely we can all agree on that.

The Irish Federation of University Teachers has called on the Government to abolish the employment control framework immediately and to start a recruitment drive. It would be great if the Minister of State said that the Government was going to do so. It has been in government for three years and should surely recognise the depth of the problem. God knows, this issue should have been tackled years ago. We need to see action on it this evening.As others have pointed out, apart from the fact that we are losing so many talented people because of the appalling conditions on offer, it is also impacting on the quality of our education and the independence of our academics. It is a fundamentally flawed situation.

The Minister of State needs to address the issue of PhD researchers. They have done a fantastic job. I congratulate the Postgraduate Workers Organisation and Irish Federation of University Teachers, IFUT, in that regard. Sinn Féin's position is very clear. PhD researchers should be classed as workers, not students. They should be entitled to worker benefits, such as sick leave and maternity leave, and PRSI contributions which ultimately affect their future pension entitlements. To date, the Government has opposed this change. Will the Minister of State either justify that outrageous position or tell us he is going to change it? This has gone on for far too long.

This does not only affect university lecturers. I will briefly make reference to the plight of adult education tutors. Roughly 3,500 tutors at education and training boards across the State are seeking an incremental pay scale, recognition of service and pay parity. They have been campaigning for years and again I salute SIPTU and the Teachers Union of Ireland, TUI. Three years after a Labour Court recommendation that called on the Government to offer these workers proper contracts, they are still waiting. Again, these are Government decision, not accidents of nature. This Government is not engaging and supporting these crucial workers. That is what needs to change.

It is good to have this debate this evening and I look forward to the Minister of State's response. However, it is only going to be worthwhile if the Government actually acknowledges that it has messed up for several years and addresses the situation. It needs to give these people the respect, contracts and future they deserve.

Photo of Annie HoeyAnnie Hoey (Labour)
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I welcome this timely motion and I applaud the National University of Ireland Senators for introducing it, particularly Senator Higgins, McDowell and Mullen. I also thank the Senators for this morning's briefing in the audiovisual room. I welcome everyone in the Gallery.

The motion addresses several issues, the biggest of which is the precarious employment that academic staff experience. As highlighted by previous speakers, there are 11,200 lecturers who have been employed by universities and higher education institutions on a temporary or casual basis. These are not considered employees of an institution and, as IFUT has noted, they are expected to "Deliveroo" their lectures and are paid on an hourly basis. I was on a campus in Limerick only last week when an academic stopped me. She said she knew who I was and various other bits and pieces. I will not plámás myself too much. She told me she was after getting tenure. She could not believe it and said it was incredible. She told me about the staff in the institution in question who, right now, are effectively working for free because they are not being paid into the examination period. They are effectively volunteering their time. They will get paid a couple of euro for each exam they correct but they have to go through them at an almighty pace to even make minimum wage in an hour. I could not believe she was talking about staff in an academic institution effectively working for free because they want to see out the end of their modules or the term because they are on precarious contracts.

As has been said, precarious work excludes many people from entering the academic professions. The lack of financial security and supports is making it nearly impossible for someone from a working-class background to make it in academia. It says so much about us as a society and our research if we have a social class barrier in the teaching and research sector. I have spoken previously about friends and colleagues who have fled Ireland to find academic work in New Zealand, Iceland and other parts of the world because they simply could not afford to stay here. I have academic friends who have put off having families and have no access to "normal" life milestones because they are in this precarious place.

I will briefly talk about PhD researchers. The Labour Party passed a motion of confidence establishing our support for the campaign of the Postgraduate Workers Organisation for a fair deal for postgraduates and recognition as workers. If anyone wants to hear a bit more about that, we have a "Bread and Roses" podcast where we did an interview with Eoghan, who is in the Gallery, in which he spoke all about life as a PhD researcher. That is enough plugging about me. I am rapidly running out of time.

The motion recognises higher education as a public good and it should be treated as such. Many of us have spoken about this previously. The impact of treating higher education as a business with precarious contracts, low pay and funding gaps highlights the core issue with all of these problems. We simply do not invest enough in our third level sector. We should be investing in it so as to alleviate the plight of precarious employment and of PhD researchers struggling to survive, and ensure that both research and teaching in this country are of high quality. If we get rid of precarious employment and treat PhDs as workers, we might actually improve the quality of research and teaching as a knock-on impact. I do not understand why we would want the people who are facilitating research and teaching to struggle to survive.

I will conclude on this on this point. I did not get to speak on the merits of the motion. We need to properly fund our higher education system. An estimate of the value of the higher education sector to the economy indicates that every €1 invested in the sector generates a return of approximately €9. There is therefore absolutely no reason we should not properly fund the higher education sector and deal with the academic precarious employment issue once and for all. I commend the motion and thank the NUI Senators for bringing it forward.

Photo of Niall CollinsNiall Collins (Limerick County, Fianna Fail)
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I thank Senators Higgins, McDowell and Mullen for tabling this panel debate and providing me with an opportunity to discuss the commitment of the Government to address the complex and multifaceted issue of academic precarity. The Government does not intend to oppose this motion. As the speakers before me outlined in their insightful contributions, there can be no doubt that academic career precarity is a pressing issue, especially in the research system. It is true that insecure employment can and does have a detrimental impact on the finances of individuals and their ability to plan for the future. Regrettably, these difficulties have become more pronounced in recent months given strong global inflationary pressures and their impact on the cost of living for all in our society. It is therefore right that we debate this topic and look to identify initiatives that may help these individuals who contribute so much to the work of the third level sector but do not have the financial security they desire.

At the same time, we must be very mindful of overreach. Our traditional universities have considerable autonomy in respect of human resource polices under the Universities Act 1997. Although the legal basis for the Technological Universities and other institutions is somewhat different, they too still require operational freedom and flexibility if they are to deliver on their mission. The reality is that the staff profile across higher education is determined by a vast range of factors, including financial sustainability, capacity to change and innovate, the breadth of course provision and the availability of required skills and expertise. In that context, the staffing profile of universities is a direct outcome of operational need and the typical academic workforce comprises a mix of permanent and fixed-term academic staff as well as some casual employees. It has proven challenging to collect data in this area but the Irish Universities Association estimates that around 12% or 13% of academic staff are employed on a fixed-term contract.

Many different factors give rise to non-permanent staffing arrangements and there are sound reasons or objective grounds that a position may not be filled on a permanent basis. Typical examples include replacement appointments for seconded staff, timebound or project-based philanthropic activities, and appointments to new programmes, the continuance of which is dependent on student uptake. Meanwhile, occasional hourly-paid staff may be engaged as examination invigilators, specialist staff such as industry or professional leaders or for cover at short notice due to staff absence. We must also remember that the sector is required to operate in accordance with the provision of national industrial relations agreements and employment law and that any individual in the sector who feels that he or she is being exploited can avail of the various dispute resolution mechanisms that exist.I do not make these points to dispute the broad thrust of concerns that have been raised or to wash the Department's hands of responsibility in this area. However, I strongly believe we must be cautious about calling for regulations or legislation that would be practically difficult to implement in one sector, may not be appropriate for the general operational needs of institutions and may limit options for individuals seeking to work in the sector. These words of caution do not change the fact that Senators are correct that we must address the issue of precarity if we are to realise the potential of the third level sector. However, we must get our response right.

There is a lot to unpack in the phrase "academic precarity". It is used to refer to many different things including fixed-term contracts, short-term contracts, hourly pay, low pay, the employment status of researchers and the broader idea of casualisation of staff in the sector. Concerns around precarious working go beyond individual staff concerns, important as they are, and impact, at a strategic level, on the future development of higher education, given the critical nature of high quality and committed staff to maintaining and improving the quality of teaching, learning and assessment for students. The response of the Department and the Government reflects the importance and complexity of the issue. It is critical that the ongoing work underpinning this response is recognised.

The motion calls for urgent engagement with the sector and I assure the House that engagement with the Higher Education Authority, HEA, trade unions, universities, higher education institutes and others on these issues has been under way for some time and continues today. The fruits of this engagement can be seen in the work on the implementation of the recommendations of the Cush report from 2016 and the work to convert hourly-paid assistant lecturers to pro-rataterms. The Government is also responding through a significant increase in investment. Budget 2023 saw a combined increase in funding across the National Training Fund and the departmental Vote of €513 million. That represents a 14% uplift from the 2022 baseline and brings funding to a significant €4.1 billion for this year. Some €40 million of this is classified under the future policy funding which is a significant step forward in funding higher education on a sustainable basis. The adoption of a sustainable future model of funding will allow steps to be taken to address the issue of precarious work in the sector. It is also through such planned and sustained investment that our universities and other higher education institutions will be able to recruit the staff they need while helping to remove the temptation to rely on more casual arrangements for budgetary reasons.

The motion calls on the Government to revise the employment control framework, ECF. This framework is a legacy of the financial crisis. The reality is that work is already well under way. Our Department is working with the Department of Public Expenditure, National Development Plan Delivery and Reform as well as other stakeholders on a new framework. A reformed system would bring many benefits but the most relevant in this context is greater flexibility for institutions to award permanent contracts subject to an objective assessment of the appropriate contract type and confirmation of sustainable funding. Our aim is to have a way of working whereby permanent contracts will no longer be restricted to core-funded posts. This recognises that the sector, especially the traditional universities, derives a steady base of income from non-Exchequer sources such as postgraduate and international fees. We should allow the sector to use those funds to appropriately address staffing levels. This approach aligns fully with public sector recruitment policy generally which only promotes temporary or fixed-term contracts in limited circumstances where there is an objective need. The reform of the ECF would be a real game-changer for the sector but, as an interim measure, I am pleased to report to the Seanad that a significant uplift in the ceiling of core posts has been approved for 2023. For HEA designated institutions, the uplift represents an increase of more than 1,500 posts from the 2021 ceiling. The effect of this measure is to give more scope for permanent recruitment.

The motion raises issues around the condition of PhD researchers and calls for them to be treated as employees. As I am sure Senators are aware, the Minister, Deputy Harris, has already initiated an independent review of State supports for PhD researchers under the co-chairs Dr. Andrea Johnson and Mr. David Cagney. The review's remit includes the question of whether PhD researchers should be treated as students or employees. It also includes other issues such as stipends, conditions and visa requirements. The review has heard from all stakeholders and interested parties including PhD researchers. The findings of this exercise will give us the evidence base to develop the correct response. It is hoped that the first report from the co-chairs will be submitted to the Minister shortly. However, we have not been sitting on our hands waiting for the report. We have sought to improve matters where we can. For example, budget 2023 saw a €500 increase in the stipend paid to PhD students in receipt of Science Foundation Ireland, SFI, or Irish Research Council, IRC, awards, bringing the support to €19,000 per year. I think we can all agree that PhD researchers make a vital and significant contribution that benefits universities, industry and the State, but I caution Senators about the potential unintended consequences of the call to classify them as workers. How will this impact compensation once taxation is taken into account? What impact might this measure have on international students? Could it reduce access to PhD training or discourage some individuals from pursuing a PhD? There are differing views and we must wait to see the evidence and analysis from the national review to determine how best the State can support PhD researchers in pursuing their ambitions.

I will close by thanking the Senators again for raising the important issue of academic precarity. As I hope I have made clear in my comments, the concerns they identified are shared by the Government. I fully appreciate that we need to offer pay, terms and conditions that can attract and retain quality staff. A considerable stream of work is already under way to do just that. I have, however, also been honest that some of the actions called for in this motion may be impractical or have unintended consequences that we do not think the Senators would like to see. The Minister and I look forward to working with the Senators on these important matters in the coming weeks and months as we seek to advance our shared commitment to Ireland's further and higher education, training and research system.

Photo of Mark DalyMark Daly (Fianna Fail)
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I thank the Minister of State for coming to the Seanad and participating in this debate.

Photo of Alice-Mary HigginsAlice-Mary Higgins (Independent)
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I thank the Minister of State. I am glad the Government is not opposing this motion and I hope many of the points will be taken up in the coming period. He has indicated that some will be taken up and others may be followed up further. I know those in the Gallery will also be watching that with interest. I will address a few of the points. On the question of there being many different operational needs and reasons for these insecure contracts, I suggest that it is not solely a matter of operational need, but a matter of practices becoming embedded. I query the 12% figure. For example, IFUT found in a recent large-scale survey of lecturers that 36% of respondents considered themselves to be precariously employed and 30.6% of the hourly-paid staff work on an if-and-when basis. Again, that means not knowing one's hours from hour to hour, so it is not being used in exceptional circumstances.

The Minister of State mentioned the many different forms precarity takes. They are becoming embedded and spreading. They are not being used in their original designated narrow function but, rather, are widespread. That is an important and dangerous trend. At a time when we will shortly be looking at the research and innovation Bill, there is an opportunity for the Government to show it understands the importance of proper security. It is not only pay, conditions and security around contracts at all stages of the research ladder and all stages of the teaching ladder.Sadly, one of the areas where we have seen innovation in our universities is in new ways to dilute contracts.

Photo of Alice-Mary HigginsAlice-Mary Higgins (Independent)
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For example, persons have been told in Galway recently, I think, that they will be described as tutors and even when they are delivering lectures that they will be paid at a tutor rate. It is really important that we knock that on the head and that the Government leads in this. The Universities Act is very clear about the role of the HEA and the Government in terms of guiding and setting policy in this area. I do not think this is solely happening individually in institutions. There is a clear responsibility for the State to provide leadership. The employment control framework is one of the factors that has contributed to this race to the bottom in terms of secure contracts. I welcome the 1,500 additional posts but it is a very small portion of that 10,000 or 11,000 we are talking about who are in insecure contracts. That needs to be scaled up rapidly in terms of ensuring quality pieces.

In the remaining time, I want to highlight one or two very small issues. We should not solely have research that is led by private sector interest. Investment in public research, public public partnerships, is a crucial matter. It is very important that secure contracts do not become a preserve of those working in the industry area because that is how we lose out on frontier research and really new thinking. On a matter that was brought to my attention by Senator McDowell, in that 1960 debate, this is how long we have looked at the issue and this is how much it was recognised that the role of universities, the freedom of universities and the experience of those working in universities are core to our State. It was recognised that it was crucial that universities would be able to act free from State intervention even though they are supported by the State on some key issues. That debate also recognised the importance of freedom for academic staff from the least hint of a threat of penalisation. We do not have freedom of academic staff if they do not know whether they are going to be able to continue to pay their rent through the summer or whether they are going to have a contract next year. We all lose out when academic freedom and thinking are curtailed in that way. We lose out on the diversity of views within our universities. We lose out from a gender equality perspective. I have not had time to go into some excellent research provided by Dr. Theresa O'Keeffe and Dr. Aline Courtois around casualisation and the gender dimension. We lose out on the quality of teaching and we lose out as a society.

I thank the Minister of State for his engagement with the motion and look forward to further engagement. I urge that we see concrete steps to address these issues in parallel with the legislation on research and innovation that will be coming through this House. I urge that we do not look to take smaller, incremental action on this. This deterioration in conditions happened over a set period and was driven by set factors. The State has the capacity to reverse it and create again a healthy, positive and secure environment for all who work within our universities.

Question put and agreed to.

Photo of Mark DalyMark Daly (Fianna Fail)
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When is it proposed to sit again?

Photo of Malcolm ByrneMalcolm Byrne (Fianna Fail)
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At 9.30 a.m. tomorrow.

Photo of Mark DalyMark Daly (Fianna Fail)
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Is that agreed? Agreed.

Cuireadh an Seanad ar athló ar 8.54 p.m. go dtí 9.30 a.m., Déardaoin, an 25 Bealtaine 2023.

The Seanad adjourned at 8.54 p.m. until 9.30 a.m. on Thursday, 25 May 2023.