Vice chancellors will today study a "framework of principles" to improve the career management of thousands of contract researchers in further and higher education.
The draft "concordat", drawn up by officials from Government, the research councils and the Committee of Vice Chancellors and Principals, will go to the research councils in mid-July before becoming a consultation paper for universities, unions and Scottish representatives including the Committee of Scottish Higher Education Principals.
If the framework is broadly accepted research councils will probably attach terms and conditions to grants to encourage universities to bring career prospects for contract staff up to the level enjoyed by permanent staff.
The concordat only applies to staff funded by research councils and the Royal Society.
As well as better opportunities for career progression, it is expected that institutions will be asked to offer contract researchers frank assessment and advice as to their future prospects in universities and possible career openings in industry.
The proposals in the draft concordat are likely to follow recommendations made in Realising Our Potential, the 1993 science White Paper. It recommended that research councils should "adapt their grant-making arrangements to help universities to improve the career opportunities of research staff".
A key recommendation was that councils awarding grants should ensure that they hold up-to-date information on the receiving institution's personnel policies and their arrangements for the initial counselling, training and subsequent career development of research assistants.
The plight of contract researchers is currently the focus of a probe by the House of Lords, the outcome of which is due to be reported soon.
According to the White Paper, the number of such staff in old universities grew from 8,000 in 1980 to 16,500 in 1990. In science and engineering in 1990, these subjects employed six research assistants for every ten members of permanent academic staff.