Universities should be free to ‘hire and fire’ and set pay

THIRD-LEVEL colleges should be free to hire and fire staff to compete with the world’s best universities, claimed the chair of the Higher Education Authority (HEA).

But former Ericsson Ireland chief executive, John Hennessy, believes that, as well as changes to internal practices set down by decades of tradition in colleges, greater freedom on salary levels strictly set down by his organisation are required to help Ireland attract the world’s leading academics and researchers.

The HEA allocates Government funding to universities, institutes of technology and teacher training colleges and advises the Department of Education on policy relating to the sector. In a speech to the Association of University Administrators’ annual conference at University College Dublin, Mr Hennessy said a key differentiation between the private and public sectors is to be found in human resources policies, mainly because of the different missions of the two sectors.

“That said, the degree to which universities and institutes have very limited control over key levers in HR management is a major difference in our system. Combined with the rigidities that have built up working practices, contractual terms and tenure arrangements, our institutions are hamstrung in a way that many of our strongest international competitors are not,” he said.

While likely to be music to the ears of college presidents, any suggestion of change to the strict job security and contracts of academics would meet strong opposition on campuses around the country.

However, Mr Hennessy said the issues need to be addressed.

Lecturers in institutes of technology are already signed up through the Teachers’ Union of Ireland (TUI) to additional contact with students and other changes, but discussions on academic reforms required under the Croke Park deal are still continuing.

Mr Hennessy said his experience in the private sector has taught him it is absolutely imperative to be competitive but excellence and right behaviours in the sector must be rewarded, while differentiating between colleges. HEA policy and funding has promoted greater collaboration between colleges in recent years on teaching and research and the strategy on higher education published by the last government in January stressed the need to reduce duplication of course provision.

“There appears to be limited effort to devise and implement a strategy to identify and reward institutions, facilities and individuals that are doing best,” he said.

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