More than 50,000 lecturers and researchers on fixed-term contracts can expect to be given permanent job security under a historic agreement between employers and trade unions.
In a groundbreaking deal aimed at ending the culture of short-termism and fixed-term contract abuse, thought to be a key cause of the current staff recruitment crisis, the Universities and Colleges Employers' Association has agreed plans with seven campus trade unions to move fixed-term staff on to permanent contracts.
Under the deal, the vast majority of 40,000 contract research staff and the 20,000 hourly paid lecturers in the sector are expected to have permanent contracts within five years.
Sally Hunt, general secretary of the Association of University Teachers, which signed up to the deal, said: "This agreement recognises the opportunity for higher education to put its house in order and move to modern and fair employment practice."
Ronnie Smith, general secretary of Scotland's EIS union, said: "The increasing misuse of fixed-term contracts has been a strain on the higher education sector for too long."
New guidance published this week by employers and unions takes up the recommendation in the Bett report to end contract abuse in higher education and takes on board European Union regulations designed to give job security to casual staff.
Under the guidance, all fixed-term contract staff will be put on permanent contracts after a maximum of four years unless there are "special reasons" for keeping them on temporary contracts.
The guidance sets out a limited number of clearly defined situations in which it might be appropriate to keep staff on fixed-term contracts.
These include cases in which money has been genuinely offered to universities for a very short period of time for a very specific task and in which there is no foreseeable prospect of funding being renewed after a set period. This is likely to remain a topic of debate between unions and employers locally, but it is expected to end the common phenomenon of staff spending decades on a series of regularly renewed fixed-term contracts.
Contract researchers clearly using a period in higher education as a prelude to a career outside the sector who may only want a fixed-term deal will not be moved to secure contracts. Nor will hourly paid lecturers who have jobs elsewhere and are happy to work casually in the university sector.
Declan Leyden, assistant director of the UCEA, said that in time he would expect to see up to 80 per cent of the 40,000 contract researchers, or 32,000, move to permanent deals and "almost all" of the 20,000 hourly paid teachers.
"We have a problem with casualisation in higher education," he said. "But this agreement will break the back of it."