Dec 14, 2017

Don’t Expand Temporary Contracts in Universities, Says Mitchell O’Connor

The comments from the Minister for Higher Education came in an interview with The University Times.

Dominic McGrathEditor
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Ivan Rakhmanin for The University Times

The use of temporary contracts in Irish universities should be discouraged, the Minister of State for Higher Education, Mary Mitchell O’Connor, has said in an interview with The University Times.

In recent years, universities have started to explore and expand the use of temporary contracts for academic staff. But the government, Mitchell O’Connor said, “certainly don’t want them increasing them”.

Even as the government has sought to discourage the use of fixed-term contracts and unstable working arrangements, universities have begun to question why they’re tied to public-sector employment controls.

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Temporary contracts have become increasingly common – and increasingly contentious – in recent years as the effects of a funding crisis and the growing trend towards commercialisation have combined to see universities look for more power over their employees.

“We don’t want to see bogus contracts or anything like that and certainly we have discussed it very, very seriously”, Mitchell O’Connor said.

“We want the staff to have good jobs. Jobs that they can earn a living, [so] that they can raise a family.”

Mitchell O’Connor said that she’d requested figures from the Higher Education Authority on the use of temporary contracts in the sector.

The use of more flexible, fixed-term contracts has come bound up in the more contentious issue of university autonomy. As the higher education funding crisis continues – with no resolution in sight – the Irish Universities Association (IUA) has lobbied for less regulation and greater freedom for the third-level sector.

However, Mitchell O’Connor seemed to dispel hopes that universities can expect greater autonomy from the government in the near future. “I have the greatest respect for autonomy in teaching, learning, in the universities. But when it comes to state funding, the taxpayer expects accountability”, she said.

“I think it’s very important to ensure quality, right across the sector. Where you have people that are well qualified, that are paid to do the job, and they’re able to deliver those quality programmes”, Mitchell O’Connor said.

Trinity’s Provost Patrick Prendergast has made the issue of temporary contracts one of his chief public pre-occupations, raising the issue repeatedly over the last 12 months.

In November, Prendergast told an academic conference in Trinity: “You can ask the question: is the future of public universities best served by being part of a public sector?”, while in January, in an interview with The University Times, Prendergast said university autonomy is the biggest issue facing the Irish universities.

Last December, The University Times reported that 38 per cent of Trinity staff are employed on temporary contracts, with academic staff making up 40 per cent of the temporary staff employed by Trinity.

According to a report submitted to College Board in October, the number of temporary staff employed by Trinity has increased from what was 32 per cent in the 2006 academic year.

The use of temporary contracts, over the last few years, has become one of the biggest issues in higher education. Speaking to The University Times last month, the General Secretary of the Irish Federation of University Teachers, Joan Donegan, said that disputes over fixed-term contracts was one of the most common areas the union worked on.

The issue isn’t confined to Ireland. Last year, a Guardian report showed that many of Britain’s most prestigious third-level academic institutions, including the University of Oxford, the University of Warwick and the University of Edinburgh, are now relying on staff employed on various forms of precarious employment including fixed-term and specific purpose contracts.

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