In 2003 Mark Zuckerberg created Facebook, an idea now worth 65 billions dollars that has changed the way people communicate. This is probably the most successful venture in the history of capitalism, hence in the history of modern economy.
Here is how the fairy tale goes. A University nerd (Zuckerberg) is dumped by his girlfriend. In a night of rage and alcohol fumes he creates FaceMash, a web-based voting system used for a sort of University beauty pageant contest. The web-site is constructed by hackering around the various Harvard societies. In brief FaceMash is illegal. Still the site generated 450 visitors and 22,000 photo-views in its first four hours online and brings Zuckerbak under the spotlights around the Harvard campus. This awards him a free ride to the Harvard Administrative Board, where Zuckerberg is accused of breaching security and of violating copyrights and individual privacy. However FaceMash also catches the attention of the Winklevoss twins, who were cultivating for a while the idea of creating an on-line social network (HarvardConnection). The partnership between Zuckerberg and the twins develops quickly and in less then a month Facebook is created (I spare you here the details of the various legal issues connected to this initial partnership). The site grows in popularity at a formidable pace. The defining moment of this phase is when Facebook opens in Stanford and the concept is picked up by Sean Parker. Parker is an entrepreneur famous for having funded Napster, that is for having invented the music on-line. This is a defining moment since the partnership between Zuckerberg and Parker opens the venture capital door to Facebook. The rest, as people say, is history.
The question now is: has Harvard any merit in this story?
At a first look certainly not. Remember … “dumped by a girlfriend”, “rage and alcohol fumes”, “illegal web-site”, “privacy violation” … in brief nothing that a high league Institution wishes to be associated with. Still, why all this happened in Harvard? Simply because all the key actors were Harvard scholars, they all shared Harvard values about excellence and entrepreneurship and, above all, they were all extremely clever people. Yes, clever people go to Harvard. The Facebook initial co-programmer (Dustin Moskovitz), the graphic artist (Andrew McCollum) and the financial administrator (Eduardo Saverin), were all sleeping in the same University dorm. Furthermore it is when Facebook reached out for Stanford that it really took up. Stanford … again a place full of clever people with the right mindset. We then conclude that Facebook is the product of the excellence of the people of Harvard and Stanford. Producing excellent people is the key mandate of a modern University. This is what we do! And remember excellent people form the engine of any modern economy.
Let us now return back to Ireland. Striving for excellence is probably the most popular keyword in all the Irish Universities strategic missions and in pretty much all the aspirational plans of the Irish government. It is so much in everyone aspiration that in fact by itself it does not means much … I still have to see a government saying “we want to be mediocre” … What I mean is that any aspirational plan for excellence to be meaningful must be sustained by excellence stimulating policies. And this is where things get funny. As the last sting of the dying bee (the late Fianna Fail administration) the, now infamous, Employment Control Framework (ECF) to Irish University was recently made operational. What is that?
In brief the ECF is a piece of legislation aiming at regulating centrally all the appointments in the entire University sector in Ireland. This means that there is an established quota of researchers, professors, technicians, cleaners etc. that any Universities can hire in the next four years. Let me explain how this will work. Let us imagine that in order to conduct my research on … say … how to defeat a particular type of cancer … I need to hire a high caliber researcher. Let us also suppose that I have a sponsor for this researcher, that is his/her salary and research costs are paid. Now, in order to hire this person I have to seek for permission centrally to the Higher Education Authority (HEA), the Irish state agency regulating the University system. The HEA has now to make the decision. In fact it is not really a decision, the only thing that the HEA has to do is to check whether or not the researchers quota has been already met. If it has been met, then I will not be able to hire this person, hence to conduct the research. The funny thing is that it does not matter how and where the quote is reached. In other words if University X hires 3000 researchers in a single research area and fills the national quote, then nobody in Ireland will be able to hire any researchers in any areas of knowledge. Basically the researcher positions in Ireland will be capped and filled on a first come first serve base. In brief Universities in Ireland will populate their departments with the same strategy with which Ryan Air fills the sits on a plane. And what if the new Zuckerberg shows up ? …. Sorry pal we run out of quota!
If you think that so far it does not make sense, wait to hear this. All what I said above applies also to non state funded positions. At the moment I am on a plane to Saudi Arabia (it is Saturday and I do not get paid overtimes for this, just to be clear … Ah, … the Saudi pay the trip too). I have a research contract with KAUST, one of Saudi Universities. KAUST supports one researcher and one PhD student in my group in Dublin. Fortunately they all have been hired before the ECF, otherwise I would have faced the possibility of not be able to employ them. In other words I would have faced the chance of simply returning the money. A University researcher in a science discipline earns about 40,000 Euro per year. About 13,000 goes into taxes and other 10,000 in various contributions (PRSI etc.). Then even University researchers lives in houses (other 12,000 go for the rent), they eat twice a day (2000 into food), sometime they take planes (2000), they go to restaurants/cinemas etc. (1000 … Yes we live lavish lives after all). What is left, probably not much, goes into an Irish bank, hoping it does not collapse. The bottom line is that any researcher paid by non state funding provides a direct cash flow to the State equivalent to his/her own salary. So again, why we cap their number? No matter how hard you try this seems to me simply nonsense.
There are several other issues connected to the ECF. One over the many: it is illegal (see the comprehensive analysis of my colleague Eoin O’Dell). Many of the other have been already discussed in the press, so let me stop here.
A University is like a delicate tree. The scholars are its roots the excellent students its fruits. If you do not want a tree to grow too fast because you cannot maintain it, you cut the branches, better if you cut the loose ones so that the tree will grow stronger. The ECF aims at cutting the roots instead. But only one thing happens to a tree when you cut the roots. It dies.
The ECF is a legacy of the previous government. The new one has the chance to make it right and helps us in delivering a University system able to drive Ireland out of the financial hole we are in. The message is out, are there hears to listen ?