Young losers in the generation game

September 10, 2004

Are the short-term contracts and poor pay suffered by most junior academics driving a wedge between them and senior staff? Chris Bunting reports.

For 12 years since finishing his PhD at Birmingham University in 1992, Simon Golding, now a 37-year-old postdoctoral research fellow at Oxford University, has worked on fixed-term research contracts that have left him outside the established academic career structure.

"If you sit down and think about it, it isn't a nice thought.

You don't have much security," he says. "You come into this work after your PhD and you just stay on contracts. You may get an increment every year or you may not. If your grant runs out, you just have to move on. There is no career structure. The only way up is to get a lecturer's job, and that is difficult. A lot of luck is involved. It largely depends on whether someone retires or dies."

Golding's situation is not unusual. A whole generation of academics who have entered the profession since the late 1980s have found themselves living a similar life as researchers and teachers on the fringes of the academy. By 2002-03, only 55 per cent of UK academics had permanent contracts. In some subjects, such as pharmacology and clinical medicine, only about one in four academics was on a secure contract.

Universities have always had non-permanent teachers and researchers, but their numbers have risen greatly in the past two decades as fixed-term research contracts have become commonplace. More than 80 per cent of those on short-term contracts are in their twenties or thirties. Many of that generation have little prospect of ever progressing into the established academic career structure.

Tessa Parsons, who researches obesity at the Institute of Child Health, University College London, counts herself lucky. She has been given the title of lecturer although she is still on a fixed-term contract. Aged 36, she has spent the nine years since finishing her PhD without permanent employment. "I have had a positive experience compared with a lot of people. The system can work if you are in a good department with people who support you," she says.

But even Parsons says the nature of her employment affects her attitude to her job. "On one side, it makes you look around. It keeps you on your toes, having to justify yourself all the time. But, on the other, I don't feel any loyalty to my institution because I don't think it is loyal to me. If the grants don't appear, fair enough, I'll be off. I am on a four-year contract. The real nightmare is when you are on one-year followed by six-month contracts. You have to look around all the time for the next bit of money. To spend ten, 15 or 20 years on short-term contracts can be demotivating."

Sometimes, even short-term contracts can be less secure than they seem.

Richard Price, an organic chemist at the University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology, had been working on a research contract for six months in Edinburgh when his professor informed him that he would be moving to a post at Umist.

"I was on a Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council Grant and I had plenty of time left to run on it. But when you looked at the small print, it was either redundancy or I moved with him. My wife had just started a new job, but we had to follow him. It was shocking to find out that I had that little security," Price says.

Erika Calvo, a senior lecturer in politics at the University of East London, says the relationship between some young scholars and the older, established academics on whom they rely for employment would not have been unfamiliar to those living in medieval times.

"In lots of ways, I see academia as a feudal system. There is a public discourse of meritocracy and participation and, in the new universities, of democratic values, but a lot of academia operates on a patronage system.

The older generation can act a bit like Tony Soprano. There are some well-known academics who have big groups of retainers following them," she says. "In many ways, this is not new. Academia always could be seen as a gerontocracy, but casualised working and short-term contracts - which often put heavy demands for teaching and research performance on young staff while older staff are on much better conditions - have made the position of the younger generation even weaker."

Such complaints might be ignored if there were not evidence that higher education is falling out of line with other economic sectors in its treatment of staff. Peter Nolan, head of the Economic and Social Research Council's Future of Work programme at Leeds University, says the common assumption that casualisation is rising across the economy is incorrect.

"Casualisation is higher in universities, and we have a degree of demoralisation that is the worst of any profession. Organisations such as the BBC are switching back to long-term careers. In much of the private sector, they are moving in that direction. The kind of reliance on casualised working that we see in universities is really only in tune with private-sector thinking ten years ago," he says.

But action is being taken. Lecturers' union Natfhe is preparing a big report on casualisation for publication early next year, and some universities are starting to question the assumption that fixed-term research contracts necessitate casualised working arrangements. Robert Gordon University in Aberdeen decided seven years ago to begin moving all its staff off temporary contracts. At that time, 40 per cent of its staff were casualised. Now, less than 10 per cent are.

David Briggs, the university's human resources director, notes that such a change would be more difficult in a large research university with hundreds of research contracts, often with research councils stipulating fixed-term contracts. Robert Gordon has only about 80 contract research staff. But Briggs believes a "philosophical change" led to the transformation.

"If you have that many people without security, you have no loyalty, no continuity. You massively increase your recruitment and retention problems, you have a workforce that is looking over its shoulder," he says.

European regulations due in 2006 will give employees on a second fixed contract with more than four years' service the same rights as a permanently employed worker, and regulations already in force mean that most decisions not to renew fixed-term contracts have to be treated as redundancies. Manchester and Sheffield universities are both looking to reduce casualisation and improve career structures for contract staff.

With the level of casualisation in academe in line with that of bar staff, Nolan warns that universities that do not address the issue may face problems in the future. The UK academic profession is already full of grey hairs. In 1995-96, 23 per cent of academics were aged 50 or above, and that figure rose to 28 per cent two years ago.

The fear is that casualisation and poor pay are forcing some of the brightest young minds in the hardest-to-recruit subjects out of universities, just when the baby boomers are about to retire and the Government is trying to expand student numbers.

Worse, those young academics still in the system may not be getting the broad experience that senior research and teaching positions require. In 1995, one in five academics with contracts that called on them to teach and research was aged under 34. In 2003, that proportion had fallen to one in seven.

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