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.