Calls to change contract culture

January 28, 2005

Life for the foot soldiers of research has not altered much despite a pact to improve their lot, reports Claire Sanders

It was billed by Science Minister Lord Sainsbury as a landmark agreement: in 1996 the Government, funding bodies and trade unions united to sign a concordat to improve the careers and conditions of tens of thousands of university researchers on short-term contracts.

But almost nine years on, the same partners are set to meet again to review the concordat, amid continuing concerns over the working conditions of postdoctoral researchers.

It is a move that will be welcomed by such researchers - who remain the "nomads" of the higher education world, forced to live with the insecurity of numerous fixed-term contracts.

The concordat sought to change the culture in which contract researchers worked and "secure adjustment" to the national funding systems that led to such widespread use of fixed-term contracts.

But for all the good intentions, the day-to-day lives of the foot soldiers of the country's research effort have hardly changed.

Lord Sainsbury conceded as much in a 2003 assessment of the concordat, and the subsequent Research Careers Initiative designed to monitor it. He said:

"Isolated from wider national and institutional developments, the day-to-day experience of many individual research staff has, too often, not changed substantially for the better."

The Association of University Teachers puts it more bluntly. General secretary Sally Hunt said: "The abuse of this group of staff remains one of UK higher education's biggest scandals."

According to AUT figures the proportion of research-only academics on fixed-term contract was 94 per cent in 1995-96. By 2002-03 the proportion had fallen by just 1 per cent.

AUT branches have conducted their own surveys. A poll at Leicester last year found that one respondent had been on fixed-term contracts for 29 years.

"This is a persistent and long-term problem that leaves staff feeling vulnerable, makes it hard to get mortgages and leads to significant recruitment and retention problems," Ms Hunt said.

She added that the use of fixed-term contracts is discriminatory as they disproportionately affect women, black and other minority groups of workers. "The move to review the concordat is welcome, but this time we must see real change," she said.

Professor Sir Gareth Roberts, president of Wolfson College, Oxford, drew up the 1996 concordat and chaired the Research Careers Initiative, which was wound up in 2002. At the time he acknowledged that more needed to be done and recommended a successor group.

This group, the research careers committee, met for the first time last October and is also chaired by Sir Gareth. It is a subgroup of the Research Funders Forum, set up by the Government last year to coordinate the efforts of the major research funders.

A statement from the Office of Science and Technology this week said that the remit of the group was broad - it will cover research students through to senior research staff. The initial review has been divided into two groups - one will focus on the management and good practice of research staff, the other on the career paths of researchers. The statement added that the intention is to agree new initiatives by July.

There have certainly been numerous developments since 1996. The Roberts review "SET for success" on the supply of scientists, engineers and mathematicians concluded that contract research should not be a permanent career option and the Government has backed its recommendations.

The funding councils now also require universities to have satisfactory human resources strategies for contract research staff. There have been major adjustments to the dual-support system and the introduction of full economic costing - with monies, in principle at least, specifically made available for career development and training.

Many researchers, however, are pinning their hopes on yet another development - the European regulations on fixed-term contracts.

By 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 contracts.

But Jane Thompson, the AUT's policy officer responsible for a campaign to monitor compliance, strikes a cautionary note. "The unions and the Universities and Colleges Employers' Association issued guidance on these regulations," she said.

"To date, implementation is slow. Unless action is taken soon, the hope that the regulations will transform the situation is misplaced." 

Sue Bowen is a contract researcher at Bath University. She is a molecular biologist in cancer research, specialising in cell division.

Her first contract was at Bristol University and lasted six months. Her second was at Leicester University and lasted two years and one month. She has just returned to Bath, where she did her PhD.

While she enjoys the research, the fixed-term contracts are a headache.

"There are real logistical problems," she said. She has a house in Somerset that she rented out while at Leicester.

"I can see this lifestyle causing huge strains, especially for people with children."

And then there is the issue of pay. "When you consider that I trained for seven years, the pay is extraordinarily low. No one else could do the work I do. It is specialised and I need to be skilled in a lot of techniques. My hours are not set and I do not get overtime," she said.

On top of this there is pay disparity between different researchers in the laboratories. At Bristol, Dr Bowen found she was paid less than the two postdocs working there. At Leicester, she ended up being paid more than colleagues. "I felt guilty. This situation causes huge tensions among staff," she said.

The process of writing up grant applications can also be time-consuming, although she has benefited in the past from bridging funding while drawing up applications and waiting for new grants to come through. It is the research that enthuses her and she does not want to be a lecturer. "I can see myself applying for grants until I retire. As I am closer to retirement than many contract researchers at this stage in their careers, I can live with that," she said.

David Priestman is a senior departmental teaching associate in the biochemistry department at Oxford University.

He has worked for 17 years as a contract researcher with no contract lasting more than three years. Despite this, he has worked pretty continuously on two main projects at Oxford, apart from a year at Queen Mary, University of London.

He is chair of the department's research staff committee, set up in the mid-Nineties. "At that time morale was terribly low," he said. "I think things have improved since, but the situation is still difficult for some.

It is interesting that Sir Gareth Roberts is to review the concordat - it will give a new impetus to the issue."

He said that he was initially disappointed at the lack of career progression but that Raymond Dwek, head of the biochemistry department, has introduced new job titles and improved career structures.

"As a senior departmental teaching associate I help organise and assess PhD students," he said. "I am not keen to teach undergraduates, I love working in the laboratory and supervising the postgraduates."

It is also important to him that Professor Dwek has assured him that the department wants to keep people on with his expertise and skill. He believes that his degree of job insecurity is now probably similar to that of researchers in the biochemistry industry. "Companies are frequently bought or sold and that can create insecurity," he said.

The staff committee that he chairs has 12 members; it maintains a database of all research staff in the department, noting their research interests and monitoring training opportunities.

He has small children and was able to get on the property ladder before the big hike in house prices. "Many researchers simply can't afford Oxford," he said.

He added that the cost of nursery provision is also high.

"My wife was a postdoc at Oxford but retrained as a pharmacist as she felt career progression would be difficult for her under fixed-term and full-time contracts," he said.

Next week: contract researchers work for free

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