Law will not help contract staff 1

March 16, 2007

I and many other academics have followed the debate concerning fixed-term contracts with bemusement verging on hysteria ("Changes to work law begin to bite", March 9).

The idea that universities have any power to provide fixed-term researchers with the means of support to keep them on for any period of time after a grant runs out appears to be understood by The Times Higher but not by the University and College Union. Have we got to a situation in which the UCU is trying to give the appearance of supporting research staff, on whom they rely for their income, when in fact they are powerless to provide such support? This is a total waste of the union's time, unless they were thinking of also providing support to the view that universities in this country should be funded as elite organisations. The reality is that we have a "research market" in which maybe 15 per cent of grant applications are successful, there is the questionable view that all contract researchers who are currently employed are necessarily the best option for an investigator's next grant application, and the fact that most academics with permanent contracts are desperately trying to raise funds to keep employed contract staff in their labs or departments. All this appears lost in the UCU's desire to be seen to do something, no matter how futile that something is.

Without guaranteed grant funds to support them, contract researchers will be made redundant, and there is nothing they, their bosses, the unions or the universities can do about it. Whether they should do anything about it is a question worth debating.

David McAlpine
Director, Ear Institute
University College London

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