Peers back contract staff

December 7, 2001

Peers have called on the government and institutions to do more to tackle problems emerging from the growing number of academics employed on short-term contracts in universities and colleges.

Teaching and research support standards are under threat and staff are suffering from increased stress and deteriorating conditions of service as short-term contracts become more common in higher and further education, the House of Lords heard last week.

Baroness Sharp, a Liberal Democrat peer and former contract researcher at the University of Sussex, said some academics had had 25 contracts in as many years of employment. They were often disenfranchised from decision-making processes in their institutions, and treated as "second-class citizens", she said.

She called on the government to encourage institutions to improve their employment practices.

Lord Maginnis said it was important for institutions to ensure they got the balance right between maintaining flexibility and stability in employment contracts. He said: "At whatever level we consider the teaching profession, we cannot believe that we will achieve greater productivity and more commitment if there is a significant element of that profession unsure of its long-term future. Uncertainty does not engender happiness, and unhappiness can only diminish the profession.

"Obviously, there is some need for further and higher education institutions to have a degree of contractual flexibility but that must not be at a level that leads to instability."

Baroness Warwick, chief executive of Universities UK, said there would need to be a fundamental rethink of how universities are funded if their reliance on short-term contracts was to be reduced.

"The cumulative effect of the declining unit of resource is that universities lack the financial security to underwrite the risks of longer term employment contracts in project-funded areas," she said.

Baroness Walmsley (Lib Dem) said it was important for universities and colleges to devote sufficient time and resources to integrating contract staff.

"The establishment is on a constant learning curve when it has a large number of short-term contract staff. The learning curve is a period well recognised by industry as requiring especial effort and investment," she said.

Lord Davies of Oldham added: "All staff, whatever their contractual position, need to be properly integrated and supported if they are to contribute as effectively as their full-time colleagues."

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