Third Level Contract Staff.

This matter relates to the position of contract researchers in third level institutions. The Minister of State is aware that pay cuts and pension levies have been applied to such staff in third level institutions, despite the fact that they have no permanence or do not have the benefits enjoyed by full-time academics and research fellows. I have referred to their position before and thank the Irish Research Staff Association which has been raising the issue for some time with the Tánaiste and the Minister for Finance. The association has challenged the application to its members of public sector cuts and pension levies on the basis that they do not have the benefits enjoyed by permanent public sector employees. It has raised, in particular, the question of third level contract researchers funded by external bodes, in respect of whom a pay level has been set by the external funder, be it a private company in some cases or an institution such as the European Commission. In that regard, it has for some time suggested there is a difficulty because the external funders have set pay rates for third level contract researchers, but the Government has unilaterally through the application of the pay cuts cut their salaries.

This matter has come to a head with the indication from the European Commission that it will refuse to make future payments to universities which are not paying a particular group of externally funded researchers, the Marie Curie fellows. The Commission has indicated it will refuse to make future payments to universities which are not paying Marie Curie fellows in full. That is now the case. This raises a serious question for the universities and third level institutions which are likely to lose out on funding from external sources. It is a pertinent question on the day the HEA has stated an extra €4 billion will be needed to fund the extra 55,000 students expected to attend third level institutions in the next decade. The university heads have said they cannot maintain top class university facilities and education services because of the funding crisis across third level institutions.

I have raised before the difficulties faced by universities and third level institutions. The Dublin Institute of Technology has raised serious questions about the closure of laboratory facilities, the ending of student classes and cuts in library opening hours and sports facilities because of the cutbacks. There are serious questions about the funding of third level education. Where third level institutions are obtaining funding from external sources, as they should be and actively seek to do, it is important that they are able to obtain it in full. The most recent indication from the European Commission, therefore, has implications not just for the researchers paid by it through the Marie Curie fellowships but also for the universities and institutions.

This position has been adopted by the European Commission following the imposition of pay cuts on externally funded researchers, regardless of the nature of the contract and the terms and conditions laid down by the Commission or any other external funding authority. Will the Minister of State confirm that the blanket approach of his Department's and the Department of Finance to cutting pay for externally funded researchers may have the unfortunate consequence of resulting in a breach of contract between a university and the funding authority? Will he confirm that the Department intends to review the situation with regard to Marie Curie fellows, given the implications of a loss of funding to the universities concerned? There has been correspondence on the matter between the Irish Research Staff Association and the Department.

I have been on the front line in third level institutions, teaching in Trinity College, from which I am on unpaid leave, but I hear from colleagues that funding cuts have been particularly bad this year. There is a serious issue for the contract researchers, on whom so many departments, particularly in the scientific and medical fields, depend. These are individuals who are paid relatively low amounts and do not have permanence or enjoy any of the benefits attached to third level employment generally. I hope, therefore, that the Minister of State will respond to the European Commission's recent indication that it will refuse to make future payments to universities, unless the Marie Curie fellows are paid in full without the imposition of the cuts imposed by the Government.

I thank the Senator for raising this matter. I would like to give some background information on the Marie Curie programme. It is part of the European Union's seventh framework programme for research and technological development, the major European Union instrument for funding research in the period 2007 to 2013. It seeks to provide broad support for the career development of researchers in the Union, with particular emphasis on research training and the provision of a structured mobility period in another country. It is open to researchers across all disciplines and from both industry and academia.

The impact of the programme in Ireland is significant. The programme has enabled research groups in our higher education institutions to attract high quality international PhD students and researchers to their teams. It has also enabled Irish researchers to spend a period abroad, furthering their experience and giving them the opportunity to work with internationally renowned researchers in their field of expertise.

The Marie Curie programme is an EU-wide scheme and its terms and conditions are defined by the European Commission. In this context, Commission officials have raised queries concerning the impact on Marie Curie award holders arising from the application of the recent public sector pay reductions. The criteria for reducing the pay of public servants, with effect from 1 January, are contained in the Financial Emergency Measures in the Public Interest (No. 2) Act 2009, in which a public servant is defined as a person who is employed by, or who holds any office or other position in, a public service body. A public service body is defined as one which receives direct or indirect funding and in which a public service pension scheme is in place, or applies or may be made. Section 6 of the Act contains a provision to allow the Minister for Finance to exempt either certain public servants, or classes or groups of public servants, from the operation of the Act either entirely or to such extent as the Minister considers appropriate in the event where there are exceptional circumstances.

Under the terms of the Act, universities and institutes of technology are considered to be public service bodies. The Act does not distinguish between those employees who are members of a public service pension scheme and those who are not, nor does it distinguish between those whose salaries are wholly paid from moneys provided by the Exchequer and those whose salaries are funded from other sources. The position is that all persons employed by a university or institute of technology, regardless of how their salaries are funded and irrespective of whether they are members of a public service pension scheme, are by definition public servants within the meaning of the Act.

Holders of Marie Curie awards who are hosted in a university or institute of technology have their employment contract with that institution. It is for this reason that the pay reduction has been applied to the Marie Curie fellows in the same way as it has to all other researchers and employees of these institutions. I am aware that representations have been made for an exemption to be made in the case of Marie Curie researchers. The Senator will be aware, however, that any consideration in this case must take into account the wider implications of such an exemption for other staff in the institutions and across the public sector.

Section 6 of the Act allows for an exemption to be made, on which the Minister of State focused. I notice that he did not close off entirely the possibility of an exemption being made in the case of externally funded researchers. Therefore, I ask that the use of section 6 be considered to exempt the particular category of externally funded researchers mentioned. It seems unfair to include these people as individuals and it is not in the interests of third level research funding in general to have them included in the Act with the implications this may have for external funding for universities and institutes of technology.

I outlined the legal position to the House in respect of this matter. As I noted, representations have been received and I reiterate these are being considered. However, they must be taken into account along with the wider implications of such an exemption in regard to other staff in the institutes and across the public sector.