Deal to improve researchers' career prospects fails to gain UCU support

Concordat between v-cs and funders does not allay concern over fixed-term posts. Zoe Corbyn reports

June 26, 2008

A new agreement drawn up between vice-chancellors and funding bodies to support the career development of researchers has failed to win the backing of the main academics' trade union.

The University and College Union said the agreement did not go far enough in tackling the problem of fixed-term contracts.

The "Concordat to Support the Career Development of Researchers" was launched this week by Ian Pearson, the Science Minister, as an "important contribution in realising the potential of researchers".

It is signed by 16 parties, including Universities UK and the major research funders. A further 21 bodies have signed up as official supporters.

The document sets out the duties of universities, research managers and funders to support researchers' careers.

It also introduces responsibilities for researchers, instructing them to "develop their ability to transfer and exploit knowledge where appropriate and facilitate its use in policymaking and the commercialisation of research for the benefit of their employing organisation, as well as the ... economy as a whole".

The concordat incorporates legislation that limits the use of successive fixed-term contracts and prevents fixed-term employees being treated less favourably than colleagues with permanent contracts.

"Research posts should only be advertised as a fixed-term post where there is a recorded and justifiable reason," it says, adding that universities must abide by the principles and terms laid down in the legislation and its ensuing guidance.

But the UCU said that, when nearly 80 per cent of researchers remain on fixed-term contracts and were still "routinely under threat of dismissal" when individual research projects ended, the concordat should go beyond the letter of the law.

Jane Thompson, UCU assistant general secretary, said: "We do not think (the concordat) goes far enough in tackling the problem of insecurity of employment for research staff - the main obstacle to research careers in our opinion.

"We will monitor compliance with the concordat but have decided to focus our resources on our own researchers' and anticasualisation campaigns ... (to reduce) the use of of fixed-term contracts."

Earlier this month, an academic at the University of Aberdeen employed for nine years on a succession of fixed-term contracts won a landmark legal battle for a permanent contract. The union said it would be a "stepping stone" from which to challenge other employers.

Wendy Hall, a member of the Council for Science and Technology, which advises the Government on policy issues, said the right principles had been captured in the concordat, but success would come down to implementation. "It is no good if it just gets stuck in a drawer and that is it," she said.

A UUK spokesman said: "Implementation will of course be crucial ... (but) the revised concordat is a good-news story."

An implementation strategy will be developed and its progress will be monitored.

To help institutions implement the concordat, the research councils have announced new funding. The UK Grad Programme, which supports the career development of postgraduate researchers, has been extended to include research staff and has been renamed the "Vitae" programme. It will have a total budget of £15 million over five years, an increase of £5 million.


The researcher perspective

Pam Clarke, who has had three fixed-term contracts plus two extensions over the past five years, rates job security as her biggest career concern. The full-time research assistant in the faculty of medicine at the University of Liverpool describes herself as "lucky" to have gone from one contract to another - she knows others who have had to take breaks.

She described not knowing whether the work was about to dry up as "quite stressful" but praised her department for what it did in trying to plan ahead to help staff move from project to project without a break. Come October, she will be on a permanent contract.

"It is about ensuring that staff have more opportunities to be redeployed. The (default) assumption should be that they can move from project to project," she said.

The university perspective

Four years ago, almost all research staff at the University of Bristol were employed on fixed-term contracts. Today, the figure is 45 per cent.

The change is the result of a policy to shift - where possible - those on fixed-term to permanent contracts. When a new post is advertised the default policy is that it will be permanent unless there are clear reasons for it not to be, such as if it is maternity or sickness cover or if the post is so specialised that it would never be needed again.

Fixed-term funding is not a valid reason, explained Christian Carter, the personnel manager, so the policy poses challenges. He said: "Funding streams go up and down ... (But) we think it makes good business sense. We want to make sure the best researchers come here and that we keep them here."

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