The AUT wants an end to fixed-term contracts
Fixed-term contracts are the norm for young academics starting their careers but the short-termism they breed is damaging both staff and institutions, according to the Association of University Teachers.
While fixed-term contracts are not new in universities, their use is increasingly widespread. It is no longer the case that a researcher starts on a fixed-term contract before moving on to secure a permanent lecturing post. The AUT says that people beginning careers now are likely to lurch from contract to contract for much of their working lives.
Changes in the higher education economy mean that permanent lectureships are rare. Universities are downsizing and demand staffing flexibility in their bid to combat a series of funding blows. The focus is on redundancy and early retirement rather than recruitment of permanent staff.
The AUT is campaigning against fixed-term contracts and the ubiquitous adjunctive waiver clauses by which employees sign away crucial employment rights. The union has secured a commitment from the Labour party that it will outlaw fixed-term contracts when in government.
Tony Axon, a researcher for the AUT and formerly a contract researcher at Durham University, said that most students completing PhDs and contemplating an academic job ought to be aware of fixed-term contracts.
He said: "For people finishing their PhDs the problem is finding a job. There are not many industrial research posts and permanent university research and lecturing posts are even more scarce. Having said that, I think many people sign contracts without being fully aware of what they are signing away."
The AUT is particularly worried by waiver clauses. There are two issues: waiving rights to redundancy payments at the end of a contract; and waiving rights to unfair dismissal claims. Importantly, employees are not signing away their rights to consult with their union to ensure that redundancy procedures are carried out.
Dr Axon said: "One of the important things for anyone signing a contract is to find out what their rights are at institutional level as these may differ from what they have been told by the supervisor at departmental level. Supervisors tend to see the researchers as their own employees."
Women can get into difficulty by signing fixed-term contracts, according to Dr Axon. It takes six months to become eligible for the minimum amount of maternity leave and this entitlement increases up to a maximum after two years. However, if a woman's contract expires after, say, 18 months and she moves to a different institution and signs a new contract then she loses the maternity leave entitlement she has built up.
In addition, fixed-term contracts may prevent career progression. On completion of a PhD many people may already be in their mid-20s. A subsequent fixed-term contract or two may tie them into jobs until they are nearly 30. By this time, argues Dr Axon, many employers, particularly in industry, may view them as too old and set in their ways.
Fixed-term contracts may also damage university research. Dr Axon said that short-term research teams stood little chance of developing any cohesion and so were unlikely to attract as much funding as a fixed team. He said: "Short-termism means investing in research and then losing that investment."
The AUT's opposition to fixed-term contracts is firm but, in practice, the union is in a difficult position. It cannot tell young academics to refuse to sign contracts, including waiver clauses, as it is clear that universities will easily find someone, equally qualified, who will sign. Yet because they are individual contracts they, by definition, weaken the union's power to defend its members.