EU’s planned limit on fixed-term contracts ‘unworkable’

Proposed threshold fails to take account of funding challenges facing universities, sector groups say

November 17, 2023
A 1901c Renault being pushed up a hill after breaking down during the annual London to Brighton Veteran Car Run to illustrate EU’s planned limit on fixed-term contracts ‘unworkable’
Source: Getty images

The European Commission’s planned “maximum threshold” for use of fixed-term contracts in academia would be difficult to implement and unlikely to address the root causes of precarity, universities have warned.

The commission’s proposal would direct member states to take “resolute action” to counter insecure employment in research, advising the implementation of “a maximum threshold of one-third of fixed-term contracts in the overall researchers’ human resources of a given employer”.

But such a threshold would be unlikely to fit the needs of all universities, nor would it “respect their autonomy”, according to a joint statement released by groups including the Guild of European Research-Intensive Universities, the Coimbra Group and the European University Association (EUA). They said the overall proposal was “moving things forward” and commended its “general objectives”, but highlighted several areas for improvement. 

“There is a need to reposition the narrative from targets on fixed-term contracts to the types of contracts being offered to researchers and the associated eligibility for social benefits,” the groups said.

Julien Chicot, senior policy officer at the guild, said the commission’s focus on precarity was welcome. “It’s a huge concern right now for our universities,” he told Times Higher Education. “They are really aware that it can affect the mental health of researchers and make academic careers less attractive to the people most likely to suffer from precarity, including women, people with families and people coming from overseas.”

Guild members, he said, had nevertheless raised doubts about the proposed threshold on fixed-term contracts. “Our universities do not understand why one-third was decided,” Dr Chicot said. “We are really unsure whether this threshold is actually feasible and relevant.”

The League of European Research Universities (Leru) said in a statement that the one-third limit would be “unworkable”, noting that PhD-level researchers constituted more than a third of researchers in Leru universities and the organisation “[does] not believe that a temporary contract is the most critical issue for this group”.

“Moreover, giving people an indefinite contract in the beginning of their research careers may create the expectation of having a full career in academia, while today more than 90 per cent of the starting researchers end up in industry, government or non-profit organisations,” Bert Overlaet, chair of the Leru careers of researchers and human resources policy group, told THE.

The commission recommendations also fail to account for the role university funding plays in the proliferation of fixed-term contracts, according to Professor Overlaet. “Most governments have reduced their block funding in favour of more project spending for research,” he said.

Dr Chicot echoed this concern. “Universities have very low long-term visibility regarding their budgets. When you don’t know what your budget will look like after five or 10 years, it’s really difficult to recruit someone with an indefinite contract,” he said.

Stephane Berghmans, director of research and innovation at the EUA, said that “consistent and sustainable core funding for universities” was essential for them to offer long-term career avenues.

Such funding must cover the “support, development and training” offered to early-career researchers in order to guide them into stable employment, whether in academia, industry or elsewhere, Professor Overlaet stressed. “In many programmes, such as Horizon Europe, the effort and time we put into coaching and supporting young researchers in their careers is not an eligible cost for the project,” he said. “If we do what the European Commission is asking – give more support to these early-career researchers – then we are punished financially.”

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