Long and short of job contracts

January 22, 1999

The THES received a huge number of responses to the Soapbox article by University of Westminster personnel director Larry Bunt ("Pros of the short term", THES, January 8). Here are some of the highlights.

Larry Bunt extols the virtues of fixed-term contracts on two grounds: that everybody, including the Japanese, is doing it and that quite a lot of money comes in fixed-term lumps rather than as a steady stream. The first ground is an obviously fallacious argument of the 40-million-Frenchmen-can't-be-wrong variety, while the second is more subtly flawed. In a competitive market one of the advantages our universities have is that research teams are fairly stable. Were there to be any real advantage in putting together fixed-term teams for short-life research, commercial funders could surely do it themselves rather than contract to universities, where things such as lecture preparation might slow up work.

Mr Bunt also defends waiver clauses. It is true that their abolition might add a little to staff costs, but I am surprised that a personnel director seems unaware of the substantial benefit to be derived from a quite modest lump sum at the end of a contract, particularly when the employee has to move to another contract in another university, usually in another part of the country.

The UK higher education system remains stable, highly productive and well regarded worldwide. The only people who would benefit from its being reinvented for a modern-day group of wandering scholars are, of course, those working in personnel departments.

Hugh Mason, Association of University Teachers secretary, University of Portsmouth.

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