Open end could spell dead end

April 16, 2004

Legislation intended to encourage long-term research contracts could backfire, warns Rob Tanner

On the face of it, new UK laws governing fixed-term employees sound like a step in the right direction for scientists on short-term contracts, but will the haphazard postdoctoral culture change?

Legislation passed in 2002 gives contract staff the right to the same treatment as permanent employees doing similar work. This applies to redundancy payments, holidays, the right to claim unfair dismissal and benefits such as bonuses and health plans. The legislation also forces employers to demonstrate good practice in the management of human resources, including reducing "inappropriate use" of successive short-term contracts. If contracts are renewed, the total period of continuous employment should be less than four years, otherwise an open-ended contract should be offered.

All good so far, but will the legislation that mandates "prevention of less favourable treatment" have any positive impact?

Similar laws were implemented in Germany and many employers sidestepped the rules by forcing people to take unpaid holiday between contracts. According to many contract staff, this goes against the spirit of the legislation.

They fear that UK employers may do the same, adopt a policy of "one contract and you're out" or horse-trade researchers between institutions running a collaborative project.

In fact, the regulations are not designed to eliminate fixed-term contracts - they place no limit on the length of a first appointment. Only extensions, amendments or further contracts that exceed the four-year limit must be considered open ended, unless there are "objective reasons" why not. The impact of the regulations will be seen for employees reaching four years' service in 2006. Only then will precedent be set through the UK courts' interpretation of language so ambiguous that it may maintain unequal treatment.

A 2002 report from a House of Commons select committee incisively appraises the merits of fixed-term contracts in science and engineering. It reveals that only the catering industry employs a higher proportion of fixed-term contract workers than higher education, and it condemns the inadequate training, poor salaries and high turnover.

Universities and funding bodies push short-term contracts because it is in their interests to do so. Most university funding comes from grants with finite duration, so researchers are recruited to work on specific projects.

Until now those wishing to remain at the same institution could rely on their contract being renewed every two or three years. But new legislation forbids renewals, so employer are letting go of researchers rather than offering permanent contracts.

Many personnel managers, however, view the new laws in a positive way and would like to see permanent contracts issued automatically. Institutions trumpeting a cutting-edge reputation rely on full-time research staff. This is especially true of universities, where academics have additional teaching and administrative pressures to contend with. The offer of good terms and conditions may play to market forces: Aberdeen's Robert Gordon University has transferred all its researchers to open-ended contracts with the intention of attracting the best employees.

But among academics, the whispers are that there is no scope to support more than a few permanent researchers in each department. But no serious estimate has been made, and it is possible that the present system costs as much money as it saves, given that universities have to retrain staff, pay redundancy money and advertise replacement posts - and so lose productivity.

We will see in 2006 if the legislation has teeth. But until the principal investigators bringing in the funding appreciate the level of discontent, it is unlikely that the lives of fixed-term employees will improve significantly.

The only certainty is the finishing date of the contract.

Rob Tanner is a research fellow at Warwick University until June 2004.

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