Saturday, September 13, 2008

Lights out for fourth level research due to HSE style budget cuts in Universities

I'd like to share a rumour / latest conspiracy theory doing the rounds regarding fourth level funding. I'm not sure if its true but it needs to be answered and quashed ASAP by the Government, the Department of Education, and the founding bodies such as Science Foundation Ireland or Enterprise Ireland. This was spurred on by John's post.

Rumours are painting a scary picture which is emerging from a number of universities across the state. The universities, it seems are willing to throw the baby out with the bath water in order to make the 3% to 5% salary budget cut imposed on them by the Government. The fourth level research sector is undergoing a purge reminiscent of Kristallnacht where many young researchers and their project proposals are being silently dropped from universities to fulfil these cuts. It seems that in the typical wisdom of the Government and as seen previously in the HSE, a salary budget for an institution is a single figure. This is one composite figure regardless of whether it comes from funded research projects or from the Department of Education. Like the HSE, its a figure that does not distinguish between front line services or managerial / secretarial levels. In the case of universities, the distinction can be seen between central admin, departmental staff, and contracted researchers / lecturers.

A major goal of the knowledge economy in Ireland is to promote new areas of research to encourage the development of new technologies and to enable new discoveries in the sciences. This process will create a new generation of researchers and open new possibilities for business through the commercial exploitation of these advances which should stimulate and grow the economy. Unfortunately, the core and critical people who will achieve this aim are the junior researchers in the third level sector. These are the very targets of this type of purge. The purge fits quite well within the lens of university upper echelons and their thinking as the junior researchers are among the most silent in a university population as they typically have no union representation or other form of effective representation.

This type of purge is achieved by simply refusing to accept new research projects. You might ask how this benefits a budget reduction when a project is never started. Once a research proposal is accepted by the founding authority such as Science Foundation Ireland or Enterprise Ireland, the salary budget from that project is actually assigned to a university's central salary pool. Back to the single figure, so by then refusing the project and sending back the money the university can actually state that it has made a budget cut, which is true in a perverse sense. This approach is further assisted by not taking on any new research projects so that the central salary pool figure is not added to. Many universities seem to be stalling contract or junior researchers with various excuses or delays regarding the processing of new project proposals. This lack of clarity and response has lead to this conspiracy theory doing the rounds at various coffee tables around many universities. If one remembers the likes of President Septimius Severus Krupp in ``The Big U'' and his style of modern University management, there is a certain possibility of this type of scenario being true.

This may be the latest conspiracy theory or it may just be gross incompetence in the administration levels of the universities. It would be nice to know which. If the Government is committed to a knowledge economy, the means of achieving it are the very researchers affected by this bizarre situation. It is past time for budget cuts by memo to be dropped. A scalpel rather than an axe approach for budget adjustments is needed. This means targeted cuts in non essential areas or services which will not negatively affect the future engines of growth such as fourth level research.

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  • "This may be the latest conspiracy theory or it may just be gross incompetence in the administration levels of the universities."

    It can be two things. Administration by fiat usually is.

    By Blogger mgb, at 8:25 p.m.  

  • I hope you're right, the other case would show unheard of levels of competency in our third level institutions. Might even be enough to scare the politicians.

    By Blogger Eoin Brazil, at 9:54 p.m.  

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