Desperate contract staff work for no pay

February 4, 2005

Scores of academics are working for free in UK universities as they desperately attempt to keep one toe on the research career ladder, it has emerged.

A trail of insecurity, financial problems and even broken marriages has been uncovered by a Times Higher investigation into the personal impact of working from one short-term contract to another - the reality for thousands of contract researchers.

Interviews with academics who have worked unpaid for months on end confirm the findings of a study into the tactics employed by researchers struggling to maintain their self-esteem and job prospects between contracts.

"People work for free as part of a 'live in hope' scenario," said John Hockey of the School of Education at Gloucestershire University, who carried out the study. "Part of the unpaid labour of those unemployed is often to continue to work on research data that they did not have time to exploit when employed."

Although Dr Hockey's study focused on a group of 60 contract researchers in the social sciences, the findings will chime with hundreds of contract researchers across the sector who work unpaid as they pursue another fixed-term contract.

In 2002-03, there were nearly 46,000 research-only academics in UK universities, nearly a third of all academics. Of these researchers, 93 per cent were on fixed-term contracts despite a decade's worth of initiatives and a concordat designed to limit their use.

Sally Hunt, general secretary of the Association of University Teachers, said: "Research projects should be properly planned and costed, and that means taking staff costs into account and ensuring that researchers are treated decently. No decent employer should expect anybody to work for free."

The AUT is campaigning to ensure that universities comply with European Union regulations on fixed-term contracts. Universities should have placed most of their researchers on open-ended contracts by 2006, but progress is slow, the AUT said. Reading University is a notable exception. It has introduced open-ended contracts.

Jane Thompson, who is running the AUT campaign, said: "Universities can provide bridging funds to pay researchers between contracts, but few do.

And, anecdotally, we hear of many cases where academics have worked for free."

A spokesperson for the Universities and Colleges Employers Association said that the pay framework agreement and fixed-term regulations should allow institutions "to iron out discrepancies and address job security for fixed-term research contractors".

A spokesperson for Research Councils UK said that one of the conditions of research grants was that universities adopt the principles for the management of research staff that were set out in the concordat.

Of the two researchers who spoke to The Times Higher anonymously, one has worked unpaid for a year, the other for ten months. The first likened contract researchers to "suitcases" who had to follow the head of a laboratory when he or she left an institution or find a job elsewhere.

The other researcher, who has been living off unemployment benefit and working full time but unpaid, said that working on fixed-term contracts had led to the collapse of his marriage.

Dr Hockey's study found that out-of-work researchers were keen to remain visible to colleagues. But this could backfire, as one respondent related:

"I had been in the position of being in post when another person who was very down at being out of contract had hung around the centre. Everyone found him difficult to deal with, and sadly as a result there was some avoidance of him."

Dr Hockey described the whole system as "hugely wasteful".

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