New Government Department (FHERIS) should spell good news for Researchers!
This year saw the creation of a new government Department for Higher Education called FHERIS: ‘the Department of Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science’. Previously, Higher Education (HE) fell under the remit of the DES and the HEA. FHERIS is responsible for HE funding, and the creation of policy for the further, higher education and research sector, with oversight the stage agencies and public institutions operating in this area. In theory, this should spell good news for researchers. Recently, the Chair of UCCRSA (Dr Rosarii Griffin), together with Dr Andrew Allen (the Chair of IrishRSA - of which UCCRSA is a member) met with the first Minister ever assigned to FHERIS Deputy Simon Harris TD to discuss issues that impact on researchers at a national, international, and the local HEI level. It was a very fruitful and engaging discussion with a packed agenda. Later, Dr Griffin reported to the UCCRSA Committee: ‘it was clear the Minister was on top of his brief, he was both interested and informed about some of the pertinent issues we raised, and was keen to make progress in areas of mutual interest to researchers’. These discussions will continue, as the IrishRSA and UCCRSA have already contributed to FHERIS calls for consultations on different matters of interest.
COVID-19 YEAR IMPACT ON RESEARCHERS
It was a difficult year, given the Covid-19 global pandemic, which disrupted plans for large EU project scale meetings, conference gatherings, research laboratory work and the gathering of field research data. This was primarily because of the severe but necessary restrictions put in place, to safeguard public health as the nation’s number one priority. However, such restrictions did play havoc with the best laid research plans in relation to access to the University, to labs or undertake field work. It also impacted on access to people and places, given the many social and travel restrictions put in place. Despite this, researchers worked through them, and were glad of support put in place both by the University, and by the government (especially in terms of no-cost grant extensions), etc. The Covid-19 pandemic has possibly changed researchers ‘modus operandi’, certainly in the short term, and possibly in some respects, in the long term. Nevertheless, there is always a need for personal contact, the desire to interact, to share ideas in person. We look forward to the day when we can safely meet face-to-face, and go about research without the layers of currently necessary public health guidelines. Yet, during this time, we also have realised that so much can be achieved online and realised that perhaps all previous travel was not as necessary as we previously thought. Indeed, we have become more conscious of our carbon footprint. In any case, there is cause to recalibrate our work-life balance and reassess what is ‘essential travel’ from ‘desirable travel’ to our workplaces, and to conferences of interest.
Post-Covid-19 Priorities for UCCRSA
For UCCRSA, the priority is, as it has always been, is to support and protect career researchers in Higher Education, and to ensure that their working conditions, and career prospects remain safe and secure, and protected, especially from the scourge of precarity, which feels like a cancer creeping in, destroying work ethic, corroding loyalty to institutions and creating inequalities between work colleagues. Precarity by its nature is ‘short term’ in its vision leading to difficulties in motivation and mental health. Thinking about ‘secure’ jobs and long-term strategic planning is important in an era of global competition between HEIs for research rankings, where UCC is currently failing. This is partly due to lack of core Irish government funding and investment in the sector. It is also due to the current prevailing ideology of so-called ‘liberalising’ of the workforce, so that employers take on less responsibility for their workers. Workers/researchers i.e. you and I need to protect each other, to ensure the best outcomes for everyone. Security of tenure is a basic right. It provides financial stability for researchers, their families and society at large. Thinking ‘short-termism’ is foolhardy. Therefore, we must work together to protect each others’ work careers, especially supporting the more traditional marginalised groups (namely women, LGBTQ+, race/ethnicity, etc). it’s our collective responsibility to proactively support researchers, especially those on precarious contracts, for the betterment of the community of learners at large.