Unintended consequences, academic edition

Colm Harmon has a nice little piece on some (possibly) unintended consequences of current government higher education policy here.

32 replies on “Unintended consequences, academic edition”

Empirically, it would appear that there is NO higher education in Ireland. Look around ….. (-;

UCD made a big mistake bringing their pension funds into a bankrupt state. This has the implication that all UCD staff come under employment control. Even researchers that are non-exchequer funded cannot be hired. This is very serious. Geary is able to win top EU grants and we cannot hire research staff, fund Ph.D.s and admin. Even the local economy around UCD is losing out.
Universities have to understand that by mid 2012 the Irish Government is likely to default. Do the Universities have a plan to assert autonomy when all contracts are off with the state? What is to be done with fees, non-exchequer research income, quangos in the HE sector, pensions and, finally, indirect costs inside HEIs (Indirect costs inside Universities that are greater than 50 per cent)? We have two years to work this out or end up with vestigial research institutes and quangos across the third level sector which will make ghost housing estates look pretty.

The model here seems to be a civil service department with no external income. The way things are at present there is very little incentive within universities to look to external sources of income, whether research or teaching based. This is totally illogical, but it reflects universities being brought into the civil service machine. Management of the universities has its problems, but being further enmeshed in the (generally useless) bureaucracy will be the ruination of the Irish Third level sector.

This is really an issue of a loss of autonomy from academics to central government. Unfortunately, it has become predictable, the government controls the wages/income of universities and last year took over full responsibility of the pensions of university staff. At this point, the government has completely taken over the Irish university sector and has the “right” to pursue their objectives, which include reducing the size of universities (using whatever criteria).

Undoubtedly, it is going to be difficult to retain and recruit serious and world renowned academics into this new university system, especially in the areas such as Humanities, Classics, Social Science and Business.

I do think that Trinity, in particular, missed the opportunity to resist full takeover by government and go for a solution where it would take itself out of the public system and operate as a private university. This opportunity might not have disappeared but as time goes on and elements of the Hunt report gets implemented then it becomes increasingly more difficult to go private.

But – and this is not hype – you can throw the whole SSTI and associated strategies in the bin if these constraints are not lifted.

I can understand Prof. Harmon’s frustration but it should be understood that the €8.2bn science strategy announced by Micheál Martin in 2006, was a delusional project from the outset.

After the collapse of the US investment bank, Lehman Bros., in Sept 2008, it was repackaged as the ‘smart-economy’ project as a replacement for construction as a potential engine of growth.

It will be a cold day in Manila before that will happen and to call an aspiration to have up to 235,000 new jobs created in a decade by a replication of Silicon Valley in Ireland, a fairytale, would be kind.

Last Dec, Taoiseach Brian Cowen termed a decision of an American venture capital company to open an office in Ireland, a ‘coup.’

It was that and the National Pensions Reserve fund gave the firm $50m to invest; like MIT’s earlier franchise, this company likely put up no investment.

Even before the crash, UCC research showed that the majority of PhD graduates became postdocs rather than getting real jobs.

The problem with the €1bn science budget is that it’s difficult to know how much is wasted; amateur politicians have set the goals; the staff of the State agencies go along and the beneficiaries of the tax funds largesse in the universities and the private sector, take what money comes their way.

Meanwhile, data on outcomes is very limited.

The amount of original research done by FDI firms in Ireland will continue to be limited and the default VC exit for young Irish tech firms with potential will remain a sale to a bigger US firm.

Of course the whole science budget should be geared towards job creation but in austere times, both the good projects and bad projects are treated equally and who is to know the difference?

As for the ‘smart economy’ strategy, in a clear admission of failure, a fourth advisory group since Dec 2008 is currently exploring what sectors research should focus on and last Sept, Minister Batt O’Keeffe told them to contact officials in other countries to pick up ideas.

Innovation: Ireland’s ‘smart economy’ strategy, universities and free-lunch entrepreneurship


@ Patrick Paul Walsh

The reason why UCD left the bankrupt State take responsibility for the pension fund was because the university in common with Trinity and others, so badly managed the funds and adding on extra years looked like a costless benefit.

@Michael Hennigan

There is a specific issue here, namely people who have managed to defy your expectations and actually get money from sources other than the Irish state cannot bloody hire researchers despite the fact that the money is available and ready to be used, without going through a process that is completely self-defeating. This is what Colm’s post is about. Whatever your general issue is with the government strategy, this is something that needs to be specifically sorted out and would need to be sorted out even without the existence of a shiny five-year plan document.

@Colm Harmon

Tongue back in cheek …

‘… immediately relax the constraints for FUNDED research positions, allow the lead researchers to go to the market and hire the best people we can fund at competitive salaries, and get these people living, working, producing outputs and paying taxes.’

YES. Agreed. Present policy is idiotic ….. this means you can’t hire me – shocking! (-; [but paying the price for other ‘dodgy’ practices within hei sector … conflation again]

@J P Walsh

Why the delay to 2012 on Default? How would you justify such delay? Any connection to another x-ucd professor Walsh who chaired INBS in its rush to glory?

@ Liam Delaney

I got the impression that it comes within local control, because the “work has typically provided an overhead to the University (maybe 20%).”

It would seem strange if an external grant covered all the costs of a research, that a local bureaucrat could veto it.

@michael Hennigan:
you say that UCD in common with TCD and others managed their pension funds so badly that they had to be teken over.

My understanding is that TCD and at least one other University had very unsound pension finances. Apparently UCD’s fund was by comparison, in quite good shape, the best of any Irish University. So don’t tar us all with the same brush. (it would have been very difficult for any DB scheme to have been fully actuarially compliant in 2009-10)

The other inexcusable aspect of the pension transfer was the complete lack of any transparency either on the part of UCD, the HEA, The D of Ed (surprise, surprise). Those most affected were told precisely nothing.

I mention this because the same set of utter incompetents are probably involved in implementing the ludicrous Employment Control Framework. I can see some redundancies in the public sector I would like to have done on a compulsory basis.


Yes Michael, they can’t hire you either on ‘externally funded projects’ – and you are streets ahead of most researchers in Irish HEI.


It depends what you mean by veto and the problem is not local control on behalf of the universities but rather the attempt to clumsily impose a national framework on something that it should not cover. The problem is that they have imposed national rules on all hiring from all grant sources. So, for example, if Colm were to win an EU grant that allowed a really good postdoc to come to UCD he would have to hire the person on the lowest rung of the postdoc scale rather than offering whatever the grant allowed and whatever the person is worth. Colm makes the point better than me so read his original post again. It is ludicrous and absolutely torpedoes any projects that hire researchers. I really do not have enough knowledge of the inner institutional workings to know who has crafted this and why but, in fairness, when people like Colm are saying openly that its going to needlessly kill grants and hiring then surely this should be viewed as the proverbial dead canary.

As an addendum it does seem the issue here is the pension scheme. In effect all hires – even two and three year contract hires FULLY FUNDED (@michael, including the costs to the University of light, heat, power and admin) – are bundled into the state public sector pension scheme as opposed to the Universities scheme (as noted by @pp walsh). So fix that problem instead of killing the patient to cure the disease, so to speak.

I also see in the thread, as @Liam noted, issues around innovation strategy etc. I raised in my original blog post conclusion – perhaps I shouldn’t. The issue I have has nothing to do with innovation/knowledge economy etc. To repeat the point – the Institute I run has brought in on about a 3:1 ratio non-exchequer (purely non-exchequer – I am not counting PRTLI, Irish research councils etc etc) funding based practically 100% on peer review of our research proposals (i.e. this is not contract, consulting research). That input has produced very strong output academically and created an important environment, for example, for training young academics. That is what is threatened.

As I understand it, yes, Marie Curie successful proposals will be subject to the same review as appointments. What is unclear is how they will be salaried – MC Fellowships typically are a fixed salary in all countries with some adjustments for cost of living, set by the EU. If we are going to impose Irish salary scales on that we can kiss goodbye to EU funding and be the laughing stock into the bargain.

@P. P. Walsh

I withdraw that reference to A. N. Other Walsh, who quite obviously, would not waste his time with the betterment of the ‘people of the moon’. No offence intended.

I lifted this quote from the universitydiary entry:

“Moreover, the bottom line is that we are being asked to make offers of circa €20k for postdoctoral candidates which (a) will be impossible to find – new economists are being hired by US schools at close to six figures now and we are already uncompetitive in that pool; and (b) is something close to half or even 30 per cent what is typically budgeted for in a project grant application which means that money – often inward flows to Ireland – is being returned to the funder.”

Ironically, this points out rather concisely the anti-competitive effects of much public sector largesse. Much policy flannel and money was recklessly flung about pricing Ireland into the top tier (remember the benchmarking payola) of global watchumaycallits. If the aim of all of this was to found an solid industrial future, the outcomes are thin enough.

The country should not try to compete with the US. It has neither the indigenous resources nor the general cultural wherewithal to go head-to-head on recruitment in any sector. Raising the bar in Ireland to recruit from the same pool as top US colleges just doesn’t make any sense, if it ever did. Oxford has 9000 academics of whom just 250 earn more than £100k per annum.

A solution to funding research could involve academics clubbing together to fund researchers out of their own pockets. That might not solve all wants but it would certainly meet several needs as outlined in the entry.

The Alchemist said: ‘If the aim of all of this was to found an solid industrial future, the outcomes are thin enough.’

OK, with respect that ‘conclusion’ goes against all the evidence. In fact, it’s simply not true. The outcomes have been crucial, and have kept Ireland in the FDI game. Similarly, an increasing percentage of indigenous start-ups now come out of that stream. Nor is the funding anti-competitive. It is fiercely competitive.

@Alchemist you suggest ‘ A solution to funding research could involve academics clubbing together to fund researchers out of their own pockets. That might not solve all wants but it would certainly meet several needs as outlined in the entry’

What are you suggesting? We have a whip round at coffee break to generate a few tenners to buy the postdocs some sweets?

These people are professionals who have a minimum of eight years of third and fourth level education. As Colm points out the pay rates we are now forced to offer are significantly below not just the US norm but also below the norm in all of the rest of Western Europe. We know this because we bid jointly with colleagues from across the EU for funding every day of the week. €20k is less than what a single person would get from the dole + rent supplement + a medical card. Hardly an example of public sector largesse. Quite the opposite. Best of all postdocs are forced to pay the pension levy even though the vast majority of them don’t qualify for an employer pension in the first place.

What particularly annoys me is why the HEA continues to exist. An Board Snip correctly recommended that it should be abolished. I don’t see why the Department of Education requires an organization to mediate between it and a mere seven universities. Or why seven universities need to fund the Irish Universities Association to the tune of €4m per year (according to UCD’s student paper the University Observer – so it must be true!) to mediate between them and the HEA/Dept of Ed for that matter.

HEA is becoming the HSE for education. Dumb dumb dumb policy and of course the IUA are staying mum…


MNCs were coming to Ireland long before the significance of higher education was touted. Ireland has been the most profitable place on earth for US corporations for thirty years. Financial incentives are their drivers. By my recollection MNCs are employing in the region of what they employed in 1998 (Michael Hennigan can correct me on the figures i suspect). The anti-competitive element relates to PS salaries and terms and conditions. “Similarly, an increasing percentage of indigenous start-ups now come out of that stream.” And the employment generated is what exactly? Enough to stem graduate emigration?

@Michelle Norris
A whip around sounds like a good idea. Isn’t that what the EU is being asked to do re Ireland Inc – burden share? Postgraduate education isn’t compulsory. One makes choices and takes chances.

@the Alchemist: Even if you were correct, which you aren’t, none of your points are relevant to the issue at hand – ie academics being forced to return the money they have gained via competitive bidding and bright and able people left unemployed due to stupid rules imposed by bureaucrats who know little about how universities operate.

I have to admit to surprise that some of the wiser and elder Governors within the academy cant see what is coming down the tracks with each incremental move towards bureaucratization of a government standard….

As someone who is neither an academic or an expert in the education sector, this seems to me to be a further expression of the creeping paralysis which is now afflicting our economy. We are regressing.

I suppose, as suggested above, the quid pro quo for state rescue of pension schemes is the extension of rigid public sector practices into the academic research world. We are the Daleks. You will obey.

I doubt that innovation is valued much in our state bodies. It’s a threat to the general culture of blind loyalty, deference and opportunism. There are some honourable exceptions of course, and I wish we had more of them.

@The Alchemist

‘MNCs were coming to Ireland long before the significance of higher education was touted.’ – That’s true, sort of, but they wouldn’t be coming on those terms now. Times have changed. We’re no longer the Ireland of the 1970s and 1980s.

I realise this will be viewed by some as a snide comment; but that is not my intent. I just find it interesting that academics become seriously engaged when the shoe of ill-thought through, under-scrutinised and clumsily-implemented public policy squeezes on their foot – or when the outcome of a market subverted by an elite (and in which they participate) does so.

This is the day-to-day reality for most businesses and private citizens. The usual response – and this seems to be the case particularly for academics – is to secure a special dispensation or exception to modify the application of this policy – or to secure a subsidy or similar protection from the outcome of a market.

It never seems to occur to anybody that any modification or amendment of the policy should be a matter for the Dail – or that one simply has to adapt to market outcomes when that market is beyond the jurisdiction of relevant competition bodies and one is required to participate in this market.

@Paul H
not sure i follow your point? Someone gets a grant, fully (inclusive of overhead) funded, and they cant use it because….? why again? Just, yknow asking?

@Brian L,

You must know I like the opportunity this blog affords to tease academics; I couldn’t do it when they were marking my scrips 🙂

But I do think I have a point. Colm Harmon advises that the ECF has been changed in a way that hinders or prevents progress on fully funded work. I’m not sure if this has been effected by the HEA or by the Minister/Dept. on foot of an SI or the executive discretion with which most acts are festooned. I’m assuming that no one is operating ultra vires.

Therefore, in my naive view, it is for the Dail to review the working of this change in policy and to amend legislation/direct the Government to ensure the implementation of this policy does not generate perverse outcomes.

This is what parliaments are for. The alternative of lobbying the executive and its administratives bodies to alter the implementation of a policy to suit a specific interest takes us right back to petitioning a sovereign when they exercised absolute and divine rights to rule. And it gives other parties full justification to pursue the same course when they perceive the implementation of policy damages their interests.

This makes parliament even more ineffectual.

I doubt if the present situation can be described as unintended. For all the talk of knowledge economies and the like there is no coherent policy for third level in Ireland. The talk is of world beaters and the reality is expectation of universities providing something to do for a large part of the younger generation so that they are not unemployed. The bureaucrats saw an opportunity in the present difficulties to seize some power, the advancement of education or research or even the saving of money had nothing to do with it.

@The Alchemist
Much of the earlier MNC activity had little to do with 3rd level. Dell had a large assembly operation, but little activity for graduates. This type of activity is now uneconomic in Ireland, whatever the tax rate. IBM had manufacturing in Mulhuddart, but this is gone to be replaced by the Smarter Cities project. The latter is essentially research and is largely graduate employment. There is a real question as to whether the existing government funding is too concentrated on (expensive) lab science based research and not enough on applied IT, analytics etc of interest to the IBMs and Googles.

Honestly not getting this point. This is (typically – at least for me) not Irish exchequer funding, it is fully funded including a contribution to the marginal costs the institution incurs. The folks hired have jobs, pay taxes, forge careers. It would be akin to PwC tendering for a project, getting it, and then being told that you either can’t hire or can only hire at a salary that will make it impossible to recruit. PwC would then return the money and say ‘sorry, can’t do this!’ and their office in Paris will swoop in and do the work instead. Cue outrage!

It seems from these comments an interesting misunderstanding of how academic funding works. For example, this year I would hope to hire 8 to 10 researchers at no cost to public purse. Moreover (and we did the figures today) I will see these same external funds cover 50% of my public purse funded Professor salary. I secure the funding, cost things appropriately, hire people, meet any institutional costs AND cover some of my salary. Not sure what more I can do!

…and my problem is that the policy I discussed stops me
from doing this…that seems a loss loss situation even if you place zero value on the research output.

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