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VOICES

Opinion Third-level lecturers are vital to the future of our country - we must value them

Sinn Féin’s Mairéad Farrell looks at the precarious work conditions that so many academics are working under in Ireland.

IT REALLY IS time to address precarious work conditions in third-level teaching and research.

During this year’s Patrick’s Day festivities, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar was speaking at a Science Foundation Ireland event in Washington DC. He described how research at third-level education was helping us to prepare for “the future of work”.

He went on to say how research helps us understand “the risks, opportunities and choices within innovation” and this had informed the Government’s Strategy for Research & Innovation (Impact 2030).

I was reminded of those words this week. A presentation in Leinster House organised by Senator Alice Mary Higgins laid bare the shocking precarious working conditions of many PhD researchers and early career academics.

Indeed, it set out many of the risks, lack of opportunities and difficult choices people in the sector face. Plagued with precarious work conditions, there are an estimated 11,200 lecturers working short-term temporary contracts, which are in effect “zero-hour contracts”.

Zero options

The Taoiseach was talking about the “future of work” and yet here we see the continuation of contract types many hoped had been consigned to the rubbish bin of history. These kinds of “zero-hour contracts” are still very much alive and well in the third-level sector.

We know the negative impact these types of contracts have on financial security. Trying to find a lease for less than 12 months? No chance. Thinking of applying for a mortgage? Good luck with that.

We also know the negative impact they have on health issues. Feeling unwell? You might not qualify for sick leave due to a lack of social insurance contributions. Pregnant and hoping for maternity leave? Sorry, you may not qualify. Imagine the impact this has on a person’s mental and physical health.

At the presentation in Leinster House, we heard from one Teaching Fellow in Trinity College. He told us he was made homeless for a time as he had no income during the summer months when the teaching year had finished.

He told us about the awful impact that has had. I’ve heard similar stories in my clinics too. Passionate people making a real contribution to education and research but constantly worrying about how they will make it to the end of the month.

Political will

At the same time, we hear from the Government how Ireland needs to do better when it comes to research and development. We need to increase the productivity of indigenous firms. We need to create the knowledge and skills for the economy of the future.
Yes of course we need to do all of these things.

But we won’t do it by devaluing the work of the people who will be key to this. We’re cutting the legs out from under ourselves as many of these workers look abroad for better opportunities. There are shades of what’s happening in the healthcare sector.

The good news is that we now have the Future of Funding Higher Education report which was produced last July. It was signed off by a joint Oireachtas committee made up of all parties.

So, there’s a clear consensus here, but we cannot allow this to become something akin to Slaintecare where everybody signs up, the government pays lip service and then it’s allowed to wither on the vine.

We need to invest in our third-level education sector which still has a major funding gap as highlighted by the Cassells report. The scars of the austerity years are still there.

Research has shown that for every €1 that’s invested €9 is returned to the Exchequer.
A wise man once said, that “education is the passport to the future, for tomorrow belongs to those who prepare for it today”.

The time has come for action in relation to precarious working conditions in the sector and for meaningful engagement. This state won’t be able to build a knowledge economy off the back of precarious labour.

Mairéad Farrell is Sinn Féin spokesperson on Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science.

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