Limit use of one-year research contracts, says Russell Group

New study by elite university group says open-ended contracts, not rolling one-year deals, should become ‘norm’ for UK research staff

May 4, 2021

UK universities should limit the use of research contracts that last one year or less and move towards ensuring “stable, open-ended contracts” are the “norm”, a Russell Group report recommends.

In a new study on how to improve research working practices, the group that represents 24 leading UK universities acknowledges that a “lack of long-term contractual job security can be a significant concern for many researchers”, with two-thirds of staff on research-only contracts currently being employed on a fixed-term basis.

“The pressure of fixed-term contracts and job insecurity means we are losing people from the global academic talent pipeline,” explains the report, published on 4 May, which adds that those interviewed for the study “highlighted the negative impact that precarity within research careers could have on researcher well-being, with short-term contracts sometimes making it harder for researchers to gain access to mortgages or plan a career around family life”.

While acknowledging that “contract length is often tied to external grant funding for early career research staff” and that “short fixed-term contracts can provide a valuable route to gain professional experience”, the report calls on universities to “play their part here…by as far as possible reducing the use of academic contracts that last one year or less and providing an explanation where these short contracts are used”.

“In the longer term, it is important that universities explore how to move towards more stable, open-ended contracts as the norm, including for those predominantly funded by external grant sources,” it adds.

The government could also help universities to improve long-term contractual job security for researchers by increasing the quality-related block grant funding for universities, which is currently about £2 billion a year, and paying the full economic cost of research, adds the study.

UK Research and Innovation should also consider lengthening research grant funding periods and academic contracts, emulating the example of the Wellcome Trust, which recently announced that it would award mid-career grants lasting up to eight years, with host institutions asked to consider making such positions permanent at the end of funding.

Tim Bradshaw, chief executive of the Russell Group, whose universities employ about half of all researchers in UK higher education, said that a “positive working environment and culture are essential for researchers and, in turn, for research to thrive”.

“Constantly having to look to the next grant application, pressure to publish and unhealthy levels of competition are some of the factors which create perverse incentives in the research system and ultimately risk undermining the quality and potential impact of the research produced,” said Dr Bradshaw.

The report also calls for more support for career progression, including giving sufficient time for professional development and improving feedback provided by managers, funders and publishers.

It also calls for more recognition from funders and employers for management and leadership skills, reduced bureaucracy for researchers, access to support networks, and involving early career researchers more actively in decision-making. 

Grace Gottlieb, head of research policy at UCL and one of the authors of the report, said she hoped that its suggestions would help to “harness this widespread appetite [to improve research culture] and translate it into real change that can be felt and appreciated by researchers on the ground”.

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