The ECF for the higher education sector has been revised. Many elements from the last version have been changed. The last draft introduced a range of measures including: the need for specific pre-approval of all individual posts (exchequer funded or not) from a small central government committee; specific quotas for each university regardless of how successful or not they actually were in attaining research income; and decisions made on the suitability of academic hires on the basis of their alignment to government strategy documents.
The new version is a vastly improved document. All of the above elements have been removed. There are sector-wide quotas, in keeping with the need to reduce costs, but allocation with respect of research posts to each university will depend, as you would expect, on how much of the research funding the university actually wins in the competitions administered by SFI, HRB etc., Furthermore, the specific pre-approval process has been shelved as has the frankly puzzling attempt to impose quotas on posts secured from non-exchequer funds. The latter should surely be welcomed by everyone.
The main reason for a revised employment control framework was to deal with pension liabilities arising from contract research staff. In this regard, the new draft forces a fully-funded proviso on to all new grant applications, with grant applicants (exchequer or non-exchequer) now being required to cost 20 per cent of employee salaries into grant applications for pension purposes, starting with new applications. This is a blunt way of dealing with this issue, and there should be further debate on this. In general, the treatment of contract researchers as if they were civil servants in terms of contracts and pensions is one of the defining issues in Irish research at present. It continuously creates confusion on all sides. Attracting bright researchers to Ireland is a legitimate goal of government policy supported by much research on how to create thriving cities. Placing such contractual and bureaucratic impediments to this is counterproductive and groups that represent contract researchers have been among the most vocal in pointing this out.
Hopefully, the new document signals a more productive debate about higher education in Ireland and an improvement in the relations between the universities and the state, which seemed to have degenerated substantially at the beginning of this year. Universities do contribute to both economic growth and to the development and maintenance of healthy democracies in ways that go beyond the current linear big-tech innovation models being employed by government. Attracting top researchers into Ireland on a much larger scale funded by a much more diverse range of sources is one avenue that the country still has open as an attainable policy goal even at a time of dwindling resources and, in fact, reductions in property prices and the general cost of living may make Ireland a more attractive place for European-funded researchers as these grants have retained their nominal value.