Hiring practices at University College Dublin (UCD) could be in breach of Irish and EU law, experts have warned. A scoring system used to hire more diverse academics has been subject to serious objections from staff, with some fearing legal action by participating in the process.
In an effort to retain key funding by achieving diversity targets, university management is centrally appointing new academics under the Ad Astra Fellowship programme. Critics suggest that the scheme could be ruled illegal by the courts if lawsuits were undertaken.
Reports also suggest academics were required to guess the gender and nationality of applicants in order to satisfy EDI targets, a practice condemned by some staff.
Announced in April 2019, the Ad Astra Fellowship is a hiring process for new Professors at UCD. Appointments under the scheme are partly aimed at advancing the university’s five-year strategy alongside its Equality, Diversity and Inclusion (EDI) targets.
The application process is carried out from the bottom-up, involving academics through to senior management. This hierarchical method allows for UCD management to maximise grant income through new hires.
Ultimately, whilst the funding is directly out of the university’s operating budget, the money comes from surpluses generated by individual Schools. This means that if some Schools get less appointees relative to their financial contribution, they are net contributors to the Ad Astra Fellowship. This practice of drawing on Schools’ surpluses to fund the scheme is partially funded by deducted salaries of academics on research leave, prompting frustration from staff.
The Hiring Process
Over the past few years, UCD has been taking EDI increasingly seriously. This reflects a greater trend across higher education, which has seen several national initiatives targeted at making campuses more diverse and inclusive.
Grant awarding agencies Science Foundation Ireland (SFI), the Irish Research Council (IRC) and the Health Research Board (HRB) now require Athena SWAN accreditation to receive funding, making EDI targets essential for underfunded Irish universities.
A key aspect of achieving EDI targets is hiring practices. Suspected illegalities have arisen from UCD’s process of filtering candidates through to management for Ad Astra Fellowship appointments. Academics were asked to score candidates on a range of criteria before elevating their recommendations to College and senior management levels.
Weighted at 10% of their final mark, academics were required to score on a scale of 0 to 10 the candidate’s contribution to UCD’s EDI goals.
In this EDI category, the candidates were scored on whether they would be in the minority or majority of their gender or nationality in the school they were applying for a position in. For example, if an international candidate were to apply to a school that was 100% Irish nationals, they would receive a score of 10. In the same vein, if a female was applying to a school that was 70% female, they would receive a score of 3. The candidate’s mark in this section was based on their stronger score.
Reports suggest that prospective candidates were not asked to volunteer their gender or nationality in the application. Because several applicants did not offer this information, staff were required to guess primarily on the candidate’s name or address.
Staff Objections Raised
The College Tribune has obtained emails revealing significant objections raised by staff to the legality of the scheme. In at least one case, strong reservations were communicated to university management regarding the potentially legal difficulties resulting from this scheme.
Amongst the complaints, a number of academics objected that EDI criteria were being unfairly equated with academic excellence. The staff objected to guessing candidate’s sex or nationality, amid fears they could be liable to lawsuits. There was a consensus amongst this group of staff that the scheme was poorly thought out and punished underperforming subjects.
Experts Warn of Illegality
The College Tribune spoke to legal experts who identified potentially illegal practices ongoing.
Although discrimination on the grounds of sex is punishable through the Employment Equality Act 1998, it does allow for “specific advantages” for underrepresented sexes. However, one expert suggested if a court were to judge that some candidates were preferred over another based on gender outright, this could be seen as imposing rather than facilitating equality.
An expert told The College Tribune that the points-boosting scheme is at risk of being found “indiscriminate” by the courts. Claiming on these grounds may require the university to demonstrate specific disadvantages faced by international applicants, which is not evident within UCD’s policies.
Reports suggest academics were required to guess the gender and nationality of applicants in order to satisfy EDI targets. Recent developments in UK law recognise “perceived” discrimination. One expert suggested that if an applicant received a lower mark on the basis of mistaken perception of sex or nationality, they could press legal action.
Another expert suggested a court could rule favourably towards the university as it has government mandated EDI goals to attain. However, they suggested that the scheme “possibly goes too far” by “explicitly excluding candidates based on their Irish status or gender”, as the scheme immediately excludes candidates that score a 0 out of 10 on the EDI measure (which accounts for just 10% of their overall mark).
No Irish court has yet tested this legislation, meaning EU case law would be guiding. Objective measures designed to promote or hire members of an underrepresented sex is perfectly legal in Europe. However, UCD could be failing in two areas: Guessing objective attributes could be ruled discriminatory and excluding candidates who receive a zero could be ruled as disproportionate and in violation of EU law.
The surfacing of these hiring methods may encourage questions from candidates – and perhaps Ireland will soon test this law, with UCD in the spotlight.
A spokesperson for the Irish Federation of University Teachers (IFUT) told The College Tribune: “Whilst new appointments may be welcome, any future Ad Astra recruitment should be done via procedures that respect existing sectoral agreements relating to fairness and equality of opportunity.”
Professor Mary Gallagher of the School of Languages said the scheme has done “nothing to mitigate the main structural dysfunction bedevilling the Humanities in UCD”. Gallagher lamented the lack of Ad Astra appointments in her School, saying that the languages and cultures have been “ignored and choked” by the university.
The College Tribune asked all other Irish universities what steps they are taking to achieve their EDI goals through hiring, however no response was received to this query by the time of publication.
No response to requests for comment have been received from UCD by the time of publishing.
This article is from Fócas, the investigative wing of The College Tribune. Get in touch with us at [email protected]. Let us know what we should be looking into on campus.
Conor Capplis – Senior Reporter
Conor Paterson – Features Editor
Jack McGee – Reporter