When the Association of University Teachers held its annual meeting on fixed-term staff last week, one workshop proved particularly popular. It was the session dedicated to preparing for July 10, 2006 - the date by which universities must comply with EU regulations on the use of fixed-term contracts. As of this date, universities will have to justify why staff employed for four years or more on fixed-term contracts have not been moved to open-ended (or permanent) contracts.
Many of those attending the meeting argued that universities are not doing enough to prepare for the deadline, and expressed the fear that disgruntled staff kept on fixed-term contracts could seek redress through employment tribunals this summer. This is a situation everyone wants to avoid. Tribunals are notoriously stressful, time-consuming and costly.
Which is why those struggling to comply with the legislation may be interested in examples of best practice in the sector. As a Times Higher snapshot highlighted earlier this year, some institutions have been far more proactive than others. Bristol, for example, has switched half of its staff to permanent contracts. And, as Natfhe notes in our story, there is significant progress among new universities.
While the new regulations are open to interpretation the spirit of the regulations is clear. They are designed to end the mushrooming culture of casualisation and insecurity that has proved an intractable problem for many universities and that has exacerbated problems of recruitment and retention. These problems are particularly acute in shortage subjects such as science and maths at a time when the demand for highly numerate graduates is clearly growing.
The guidance put out by the Universities and Colleges Employers' Assocation and the trade unions when the regulations came into force four years ago acknowledged that management faced a balancing act. "The aim must be to achieve a proper balance between flexible working and organisational efficiency, on the one hand, and security of employment and fair treatment of employees on the other," it said.
Only after July will it be clear how universities have performed this high-wire act. Complying with the regulations may not be easy - Bristol has had to change its redundancy procedures as a result - but it is clearly possible. Those universities inclined to the view that it is more cost effective to keep staff on fixed-term contracts may want to consider the impact of costly tribunals. They may also want to consider the message this sends out about how much they value their staff.