Half of research-only staff at Bristol University are now on permanent contracts, putting the university firmly ahead of the rest of the sector in the long-running battle to wipe out casualisation among researchers.
Over the past few years Bristol has made a determined bid to become, in its words, "the place to work for the very best research staff from across the world". One part of this strategy has been to shift researchers on fixed-term contracts to permanent ones, a move that has involved bold changes to the employment contracts of existing staff.
Christian Carter, personnel manager at Bristol, said: "We are trying to introduce a change in employment culture and to break the link between an individual stream of funding from a research grant and the employee sitting at the end of it."
He said that this had involved some sharing of risk, with permanent members of staff agreeing to a change in their contracts and a greater risk of redundancy themselves.
"In moving away from fixed-term contracts we have introduced redundancy procedures that are less drawn out and time-consuming. They are still statutory and rigorous, but they allow for a great deal more flexibility," he said.
The university has brought in the changes with the agreement of Bristol's Association of University Teachers and ahead of the implementation date for the 2002 European regulations on fixed-term contracts.
By July 2006, 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.
The AUT has long complained that universities are not doing enough to implement the regulations. Nationally, about 7 per cent of research-only academics were on permanent contracts in 2002-03.
A snapshot survey of the situation by The Times Higher reveals that Bristol is indeed far ahead of the game. The survey found that the proportion of research assistants/postdoctoral researchers on permanent contracts is per cent at the Royal Holloway, University of London, and 23 per cent at Surrey University. But Reading University - also seen as a leader in this field - reported just 11.4 per cent of such staff on permanent contracts.
However, many key research institutions, such as Nottingham and Liverpool universities, reported percentages as low as 3.2 per cent and 3.5 per cent respectively.
Mr Carter said that initially nearly all of Bristol's researchers were on fixed-term contracts.
"One of the first things we did was to carry out a workforce survey of our researchers," he said. "This showed serious concern about short-term contracts."
The survey also led to the establishment of the Careers in Research Online Survey (Cros), based at Bristol and funded by the Higher Education Funding Council for England, which now covers nearly 16,000 researchers across 55 different universities.
"The idea is to change the research environment by allowing universities to benchmark themselves against others and to share information," Mr Carter said.
On this benchmarking exercise Bristol comes out well. Ninety-four per cent of its Cros respondents rated training information as excellent or good, compared with a national average of 78 per cent. Three quarters rated department inductions as useful or very useful compared with a UK average of 60 per cent.
HOW THE UNIVERSITIES COMPARE
The Times Higher poll found the following proportion of research assistants/postdoctoral researchers on permanent contracts
West of England 29
Hertfordshire about 10
St Andrews 4.4