A poor practice that helps no one

May 11, 2001

Fixed contracts are bad for researchers and research, but they could be on the way out, writes Sally Baldwin.

A recent report ( THES , April ) that universities are second only to catering in the casualisation of their workforce aroused my scientific curiosity. What job requirements do cooking or waiting tables and teaching and research have in common? Creativity? Low skill? Physical strength? Patience? Or maybe understanding of human folly?

The comparison adds to the mystery of why universities have got themselves so hooked on fixed-term employment for researchers. The usual argument is their dependence on "soft money" from contracts and awards. But most of the economy operates on soft money, that is, income streams from the provision of goods and services that customers can choose to buy, or not. In fact, universities are unique in having "hard money" from funding council allocations that make up about 40 per cent of their research income.

The 1996 concordat on contract research promised workers parity of rewards, terms and conditions with permanent staff. But there has been little innovation in employment terms. Rather, effort has gone into numerous studies and projects focused on ameliorative staff development measures, such as job-search skills and training, and training of those who manage fixed-termers.

The Research Careers Initiative, which oversees these developments, concedes that while "there has been improvement, it is clear that the scale of change needs to be increased and its pace accelerated".

But something new has appeared that might shake any complacency: the European Community Directive on Fixed-Term Work on which the Department of Trade and Industry is consulting regarding its implementation in the United Kingdom.

The directive aims at ensuring fixed-term employees are treated as fairly as permanent employees. It requires that:

  • Terms and conditions for fixed-term workers should not be less favourable than for permanent workers, unless objective justification can be provided
  • Successive renewals of fixed-term contracts should be restricted
  • Employers should inform fixed-term employees of permanent vacancies and provide access to appropriate training.

Universities are unlikely to succeed in excusing themselves from its requirements:the consultation paper firmly indicates that all sectors will be covered. Some of the challenges to existing practices could include the banning of redundancy-waiver clauses in contracts, limits on successive renewal of fixed-term contracts and an obligation to justify why a permanent contract cannot be offered.

Maybe this will help universities realise that over-reliance on fixed-term contracts is not just bad for researchers, but bad for research. It creates retention problems as good researchers pursue commercial or government work or are lost to the profession altogether; money and time are diverted into constant recruitment drives; and universities pass up the chance to develop the kind of strong teams that sustain high-quality research.

Universities can reconcile fair terms and conditions for their researchers with the uncertainties of future income by addressing the organisation and management of research. There is much to be learnt from practice in independent institutes. Teamwork, planning, project management, professional support services, rolling contracts, career development and pooling of assistants are all still too rare in universities. Yet these are the means by which universities could live with a restricted use of fixed-term contracts.

Research exploits and renews intellectual capital that, for the most part, is embedded in its highly skilled staff. That is what distinguishes it from catering.

Sally Baldwin is director of the social policy research unit, University of York and chair of the Association of Research Centres in the Social Sciences, which is holding a conference on the European Community Directive at the Policy Studies Institute, London, on May 15. Details: wsa@solesbury.demon.co.uk

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