IRELAND: No voluntary pay cut for university leaders

Education Minister Batt O'Keeffe has criticised Ireland's seven university heads for not taking a voluntary pay cut.

"One would have expected that people in such senior positions would do the right thing," the Minister told education journalists.

The background to the request is the dire state of Ireland's public finances, caused largely by a property crash. The cost of public services is EUR55 billion, but there is a EUR20 billion shortfall in tax revenues which the government is desperately trying to fill.

A voluntary pay cut by the presidents would have made little difference but might have helped the government prepare the ground for a universal pay cut for more than 300,000 public servants, which is being seriously considered.

One source said the presidents were annoyed at being singled out by the Minister as they had already taken a cut through pension levies introduced this year. They also obtained less of an increase than originally recommended by a review body on remuneration.

The pay issue is leading to tensions between O'Keeffe and university leaders, who are also annoyed about a new staff framework protocol which they claim undermines their traditional autonomy. In future, universities have to get permission from the Higher Education Authority before they can fill vacancies, and then only on a temporary contract basis.

One university president, Dr Jim Browne from the National University of Ireland, Galway has, however, come out publicly in favour of pay cuts across the board in the public sector. In a recent newspaper article he argued that this was a better way forward than slashing public sector numbers.

Browne had suggested pay cuts ranging from 0.5% to 1% for those at the lower end of the pay scale, to 10% to 15% for those at the top, but said this would have to be done collectively rather than just by one group. Such an across the board pay cut would help retain public services and provide jobs for young people coming on to the labour market, argued Browne.

His university has about 3,500 graduates each year, many of whom are finding the job market suddenly difficult.

Unemployment in Ireland has doubled in a year and, for the first time in a decade-and-a-half, emigration is outstripping immigration. Unlike the previous recession, which predominantly hit working class people, this time the downturn is classless and huge numbers of lawyers, solicitors, teachers, architects, civil engineers and other professionals are out of work.

I wonder if Mr O'Keeffe took some of his own medicine?