High time for tenure

March 8, 2002

Researchers will be helped little by new employment laws. Peter Totterdell calls for real change.

In universities, research is usually something that gets fitted in between teaching, often in those "long vacations" academics have. The only way to place research at the centre of your work is to string together some fixed-term research contracts.

After four years of research in industry, I have been on university short-term contracts for more than 13 years. I am now on my sixth contract - at just one year it is the shortest yet. The longest contract was three years (those seem like halcyon days).

Last year my family and I took a risk and bought a house a few months before I received a new contract. We had been waiting a long time to do this. This time a research council review had concluded that our research centre was world class, so a five-year contract was expected to follow. Fifteen months later, there is still no sign of that contract.

This kind of - not uncommon - behaviour runs counter to the concordat on contract research staff career management signed in 1996 by the vice-chancellors and funding bodies. Under that document, they said they "will work to ensure that renewal or extension of existing grants will be as early as possible" to reduce career insecurity and disruption to research.

In practice, universities and research councils, despite having large and fairly stable incomes, minimise their risks and insecurities by passing them on to individual researchers.

A key problem is that universities do not issue new job contracts until funding is signed, sealed and delivered. Research councils do not do this until the research is about to start - and sometimes later.

In fairness, the concordat does help to establish equal conditions for contract staff. It has failed, however, to help in any serious way with career security, despite the fact that my colleagues and I now get an annual career development and planning review. We certainly could not plan to conduct a long-term research study, yet this is one of the cornerstones of our research field.

A few of us stick with research because we are curious types, but most eventually look elsewhere for more stable or lucrative prospects.

The latest development is the fixed-term employees regulations, which will become law in the United Kingdom later this year. These rules are intended to prevent less favourable treatment for workers on fixed-term contracts and to prevent abuse arising from successive periods of fixed-term employment. The regulations are of great importance because more than 40 per cent of academic staff are now on fixed-term contracts, which represents more than 10 per cent of all fixed-term employees in the UK.

It is hoped that the regulations will be helpful. They include, for example, redundancy rights for workers on short-term contracts, and they limit fixed-term contracts to four years unless there are "objective grounds" for extending them. However, an employee's time in service before the regulations come into effect will not count towards these rights, so contract researchers will have to accrue four more years before they are treated as having a permanent contract.

Also, the "objective grounds" for extending contracts look rather vague. And a cynical employer might opt to hire someone younger and less expensive on a new fixed-term contract rather than issue a permanent contract to an established researcher. Consequently, the number of mid-career researchers could dwindle further, and that would badly affect the quality of UK research.

Is the idea of a tenured research post so unthinkable? A research levy on new grants could, for example, build up sufficient funds to bridge researchers between successive grants. There is also a vast store of knowledge capital in universities, and many researchers already generate more income than they receive. And new technology makes it feasible for researchers to be employed at one university but to work on projects at another. The possibilities are there, but is the will?

One of the ironies for me is that my field of research concerns wellbeing and effectiveness at work. I know only too well that conditions of high uncertainty at work are bad for employees and for employers, although job variety - and there is plenty of that in research - is generally a good thing.

One employer recently remarked that the benefit of short-term contracts is that they give people a chance to try different careers. Thanks, but I have tried this one enough. I like it, where do I sign?

Peter Totterdell is a senior research fellow in the ESRC Centre for Organisation and Innovation at Sheffield University. He will speak at a symposium at the British Psychological Society Conference in Blackpool on March 14.

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