Leader: Fixed-term jobs, limited thinking

March 9, 2007

For the first time in years, casualisation among research-only academics - the group that traditionally suffered most job insecurity - appears to be falling. It is a decline that will accelerate as last July's European Union-inspired changes to employment legislation begin to bite.

Over the past few years critics have made unflattering comparisons between the increased casualisation of employment in universities and its decline in other sectors of the economy, save catering and hairdressing. That was always an overstated claim. Fixed-term contracts are and will remain a feature of university life because much of the work they relate to depends directly on outside funders - not because employers want a cheap, disposable workforce. As fixed-term staff are paid through their institutions and not by them, there will always be awkward compromises for institutions that are not responsible for the salary but are responsible for the role.

That said, the figures we publish today suggest that there is a wide divergence in attitude and practice among universities towards fixed-term staff and good reasons why those that find themselves at the undesirable end of the table should take steps to put more academics on permanent contracts.

The first reason is loyalty. Why should staff commit to a university when it refuses to commit to them? A footloose, insecure workforce only increases retention problems and is much harder to motivate. Why would a bright researcher in a hard-to-recruit discipline want to stick around when the rewards and security are much greater and durable elsewhere?

The second is equity. A department's coherence is undermined if its members are treated unequally, particularly if unequal treatment accentuates demographic divisions. Some 48 per cent of female academics are on fixed-term contracts compared with 38 per cent of their male counterparts, while it's not hard to imagine the resentment of young, casualised junior staff contemplating the secure world of their senior (and complacent?) colleagues.

A surfeit of fixed-term contracts often betrays an excess of short-term thinking. It is encouraging to see that an increasing number of universities have come to the same conclusion.

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