Critics claim that open-ended contracts are no safety net for staff. Anthea Lipsett reports.
Job security for research staff has not improved despite universities' use of open-ended contracts to comply with European employment law, it was claimed this week.
Growing numbers of universities have moved their research staff from fixed-term to open-ended contracts as a result of European legislation that came into effect in July 2006.
Recent research by the University and College Union showed a drop in the proportion of research-only academics on fixed-term contracts from 94.1 per cent in 2002 to 84.7 per cent in 2006.
But researchers worry that open-ended contracts offer no more job security because posts are tied to research income, and if that dries up staff stand to be made redundant.
A researcher at Manchester University, who asked to remain anonymous, said:
"I now have an open-ended contract, so my university can say that it has complied with the law. However, it has a clause in it that ties my job to specific funds, which currently run out on June 30. So what has changed? The only difference I can see is that my university will now have to demonstrate that there is no appropriate equivalent job for me before making me redundant."
Iain Cameron, head of the Research Councils UK's research careers and diversity unity, said: "It's an issue that has been raised. The legislation talks about fixed-term contracts and objective reasons for them.
"We don't believe that an objective reason (for not putting researchers on a permanent contract) is that research council money has come to an end."
Universities need to think harder about redeploying researchers in other parts of the university, he said.
"There is no necessary link between three-year research grants and three-year research contracts. Some grants could cover several different people and projects. If a contract ends when the grant does, it is very unhelpful for creating a healthy research base that encourages researchers to put their efforts into the results rather than into looking for their next job."
The research councils hope to put to consultation a new concordat for researchers in April. This will lay out what expectations funding agencies have of universities in the way they treat researchers.
Janet Metcalfe, director of the UK Grad programme, said that open-ended contracts did give researchers support. "At least they are eligible for redundancy if there is not an opportunity for them to do research in the institution. It must be better than fixed-term contracts, but institutions still need to bring in the money."