Fight fixed-term work, research councils entreated

UCU argues that a rise in project-based grants fuel job insecurity and deter postgraduates from working in academia

December 11, 2014

Research councils should encourage rather than discourage the permanent employment of academic staff in UK universities, a report says.

The policy statement from the University and College Union warns that the increasing predominance of project-based grants over block grant funding for institutions has left many researchers’ positions dependent on the winning of fresh awards.

It suggests that figures from the Higher Education Statistics Agency, which indicate that 67 per cent of full-time research staff are on fixed-term contracts, “heavily underestimate” the level of actual casualisation because many other positions are open-ended rather than permanent.

The report, Seeing the Bigger Picture: The Future of UK Research and Development, argues that the precariousness of a career in higher education puts off postgraduates, who fear that they will be unable to settle in one location.

According to government figures, 60 per cent of PhD finishers are working outside the sector within three and a half years of completion, while the Royal Society estimates that only 3.5 per cent of science PhDs stay in academia for their whole career.

“No other profession appears to be willing to sacrifice its experienced and able workforce on such a regular basis on the flimsy argument that we need to make ‘space’ for ‘fresh blood’,” writes report author Rob Copeland, a UCU policy officer.

The UCU calls for prioritisation of block grant funding over project-based support, and suggests a longer duration for project-based grants. Other proposals include the introduction of a condition on grants requiring universities to reduce their reliance on fixed-term staff, and support for the development of national and regional talent pools that would assist researchers in securing work.

The report, published on 11 December, also calls for transparency in the relationship between the government and research councils.

It says this would clarify the extent to which ministers are directing funding decisions, claiming that there is some evidence that the coalition administration “has gone further than previous ones in using its control of the finances to ensure greater compliance with a government-led agenda”.

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