End the 'jobs for life' culture

December 9, 2005

Academics should be employed on industry-style rolling contracts that abolish permanent lectureships and the "jobs for life" culture in higher education, a controversial paper will argue.

The paper, by Leeds University academics, urges universities to offer staff contracts that depend on their performance and their institution's income.

It is due to be published next summer in the International Journal of Management Studies and Organisation .

The Universities and Colleges Employers' Association has expressed an interest in seeing the paper, which has enraged academic unions that have campaigned against temporary contracts.

The authors argue for an end to "jobs for life" in academe, claiming that once academics gain a permanent lectureship they are difficult to dismiss.

The inflexibility makes universities less adaptable to changing research and funding conditions, they say.

Louise Ackers, professor of European law at Leeds, and Liz Oliver, a researcher, argue that the distinction between temporary and permanent contracts is unnecessary. "The time has come to break down the artificial distinction between these positions, and the pay and status differentials they represent, and develop a more fluid and flexible model," they write.

"Permanency ... once probation is achieved, nearly always means a 'job for life' at a time when income streams are less predictable.

"This contrast between the temporary nature of contract research positions and the security of lectureships lies at the heart of the problem. The prospect of moving large numbers of research staff on to 'HE-style permanency' is a serious concern for... institutions and the research system as a whole."

Professor Ackers suggests universities give more consideration to laying off staff if funds dry up.

She told The Times Higher : "I am suggesting a system that improves the status of those on fixed-term research-only contracts by putting academics on industry-style contracts.

"I don't want to see people sacked when they are doing a good job, but universities are going to have to start to look at redundancies as an option. We need to accept the logic of redundancies when either the performance of the post-holder or the funding for the post is called into question."

The Association of University Teachers has campaigned to end temporary contracts for university staff since 2002.

Sally Hunt, the AUT's general secretary, said: "To suggest that we treat higher education as an arm of industry, with lecturers hired and fired on laws of supply and demand, is not only an insult to their dedication and specialist knowledge, but it sends a message to students and research funders that they do not deserve the best, merely the most cost-effective."

Roger Kline, head of higher education at lecturers' union Natfhe, said: "This report appears to advocate the wholesale casualisation of academia", with university lecturers becoming "cheap and disposable employees hired and fired to plug gaps."

David Guest from the management faculty at King's College London said his research suggests that temporary contracts are "not necessarily damaging", particularly if an employee can negotiate his or her contract. "In terms of wellbeing, those who are on temporary contracts are certainly not worse off than those on permanent contracts," he said.

jessica.shepherd@thes.co.uk

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