Universities are financially compelled to use short-term contracts for research scientists, MPs have heard.
Baroness Warwick, chief executive of Universities UK, blamed a lack of resources available to universities and the increased earmarking of funding for specific uses, which reduced universities' financial flexibility.
She told the Commons' science and technology select committee last week:
"We can't stop the problems associated with uncertain funding." She said universities could spend money only in accordance with funding conditions.
But committee chairman Ian Gibson attacked UUK for not having made more progress on pay and contract issues, which were raised in the Bett report and the review of research staffing by Sir Gareth Roberts.
Dr Gibson said: "UUK is not taking responsibility for sorting things out."
He said UUK's Research Careers Initiative, set up in 1996 to monitor progress on improving management of fixed-term contract staff, had patchy coverage.
Baroness Warwick said that progress had been slower than anticipated. Mr Gibson replied that UUK should be tougher and that if UUK had been doing the work properly, the Roberts review would not have been needed.
The European directive on fixed-term work is due to be implemented as part of the government's employment bill. It is designed to end pay and pension discrimination against fixed-term workers.
Baroness Warwick said the European directive could cause more problems for universities if the industries and charities funding research were not prepared to take responsibility for redundancy costs in their contracts with institutions. Universities may have to pick up the bill for redundancies.
She said there was no incentive for universities to put researchers on permanent contracts, and that universities would not put staff on permanent contracts unless they were sure they could fund a position for the foreseeable future.
The committee heard evidence from nine contract researchers - three starting their careers, three who had been on contracts for more than 20 years and three who had left academia.
Good practice guidelines for managing contract researchers were announced today by Sheffield, Manchester and Loughborough universities. The project arose out of Sir Gareth's research careers initiative.
• Robert Gordon University has announced plans to move its 50 fixed-term research staff to open-ended contracts on August 1. The university said there would be no direct costs. It hopes open-ended contracts will help make it more attractive as an employer.
22 years of fixed-term contracts...
Liz Rugg is senior lecturer at Queen Mary, University of London. She manages three researchers investigating the genetics of inherited skin disorders.
Dr Rugg has been on fixed-term contracts for 22 years. She worked on six projects in 11 years before landing a five-year contract. Only then could she develop research plans and consider starting a family.
Being a contract employee severely limits where she can apply for funding. She cannot apply for external funding, because the amount of time left on her contract is shorter than a two-year grant. With Queen Mary planning cuts in the medical department, Dr Rugg is pessimistic about her contract being extended. "Would I leave academia? I'd consider it but I know I'd miss the excitement of research," she said.