IRELAND: Maternity leave 'cover' for academics curtailed

Irish academics who go on maternity leave will not be replaced, unless there are exceptional circumstances and then only with prior approval. The restriction emerged last week as a government moratorium on appointments across the public sector began to bite in academe.

The moratorium was imposed because of the truly dire state of public finances in Ireland, where a property crash has led to a spectacular fall in tax revenues.

As a general rule, no appointments are allowed for temporary or permanent vacancies in the public sector, save in exceptional circumstances. This applies whether the vacancies arise through resignation, retirement, career break, sick leave or maternity leave.

Primary and secondary teaching posts are exempt from the non-replacement rule for those on maternity leave, but it was confirmed last week that higher education posts are, in general, not covered.

This has infuriated the Irish Federation of University Teachers (IFUT) whose general secretary Mike Jennings said it was discriminatory against women who would be made to feel guilty if they sought maternity leave.

The government said there was some flexibility in higher education as a new Employment Control Framework allowed them to fill some teaching and research vacancies, including those arising through maternity leave absences.

But the problem is that institutions have to suppress a post elsewhere each time they fill a vacancy and they also have to reduce their overall staff numbers by 3% by the end of the year.

In addition, they need prior approval from the Higher Education Authority, a state agency, before proceeding to fill a post. Where they get permission to fill a vacancy which arises for any reason, it is only on a temporary fixed-term contract basis.

The IFUT said this contravened a European Court of Justice judgement, which ruled that a state cannot issue a blanket ruling making all jobs temporary.

University presidents are also unhappy as they claim the framework breaches university legislation and interferes with their traditional autonomy.

The union and the presidents are, however, fearful that worse is to come in the next budget which is expected to order a further cut in overall staff numbers.