Edinburgh management and union forge unique alliance to address fixed-term contracts

August 4, 2006

Edinburgh University, which has some 1,000 researchers on fixed-term contracts, has broken new ground by agreeing a partnership project with the three campus unions to manage their move to permanent contracts.

Jane Thompson, higher education policy officer for the University and College Union, heralded it as the first agreement of its kind.

The union has warned that universities must shift casual staff to permanent contracts if they are to avoid tribunal cases, following new European Union regulations that came into force last month.

The regulations state that staff who have been on successive fixed-term contracts (FTCs) for four years or more should become permanent, unless the university can "objectively justify" continued use of a fixed-term contract.

Ms Thompson said: "Other places have got agreement on the use of FTCs, but that has left management responsible for implementation and dealing with any disagreements. Edinburgh has agreed a partnership; although management will take the lead, there is a joint appeal panel to review disputes and to reach agreement on how to move forward."

David Bleiman, regional assistant general secretary of the UCU, said the impetus initially came from the local union - then an Association of University Teachers branch - but the university had responded very positively. "We expect large numbers of people to have their permanent status recognised by this exercise," he said.

The panel reviewing cases of those whose permanent status was not confirmed would receive joint management and union training, Mr Bleiman said.

Elspeth MacArthur, Edinburgh's director of human resources, said 90 per cent of staff working on projects supported by finite external funding were on fixed-term contracts.

"We are sure we will reduce this number very significantly. We will have a very big review process to look at the contracts of everyone who has been here for at least four years. Fixed-term contracts will still exist in future but, where they do, the reasons will be clear and objectively justifiable."

One Edinburgh contract researcher, who estimates he has been on 55 FTCs, ranging from a month to three years, said he feared universities could use objective justification as "a get-out clause". But he said moving to an open-ended contract would be a huge psychological boost.

"I've never bought a house because I've never felt secure enough, and holidays are very hard to take because normally there's a rush at the end of each contract and you have to find the next one," the researcher said.

Senior research fellow Margaret Maxwell, who has been on fixed-term contracts for 15 years, recently moved to an open-ended contract, but she anticipates being made redundant when her current grant runs out in 2009.

"Being put on a permanent contract doesn't protect you from redundancy if the funding goes," Ms Thompson said. "But universities are under a legal duty to minimise redundancies and seek alternative employment for staff. It does make employers take their legal duties very seriously. They tend not to do so for FTCs and very often fixed-term contract staff do not feel they are in a position to assert their legal rights."

Ms Thompson said that, while Edinburgh's new deal could be a model for other institutions, it was important to take local circumstances into account.

University College London, one of the UK's most research-intensive institutions, appears to be about to cement a deal that would mean putting all researchers with more than four years' service on permanent contracts.

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