Pros of the short term

January 8, 1999

Academics used to have more job protection than priests. Now they have fixed-term contracts, the change is good for all concerned, says Larry Bunt

There has been a lot of complaining from the unions in recent weeks that regular academic jobs - the kind that would once have seen you ensconced in a university for life - are being turned into short-term contracts. The charge is that the academic workforce is being casualised and that this is a thoroughly bad thing.

Well, let's get real. People do not have jobs for life any more, not even the Japanese. Instead of apologising for hiring lecturers on fixed-term contracts, universities should trumpet their benefits.

Like all employers, universities have to respond at relatively short notice to external changes - whether it be variation in students' choice of courses or unforeseen fluctuations in foreign currency rates. Unlike most employers, we are also subject to external control - over how much we can charge for our degrees and how many students we can recruit.

The result is a thin financial margin that requires some means of responding quickly to change. Since staff salaries are universities' biggest cost, it is essential that we stay flexible in terms of hiring and firing staff.

UK universities have a reputation for world-class research. They employ about 30,000 people in research posts, on a turnover of Pounds 2.382 million - most of this earmarked for specific research over a fixed period. Typically, researchers are appointed for one fixed term of three years, with a minority taken on for a second three-year term. And because there are only about 45,500 university lecturers in total, few of the 10,000 researchers leaving higher education in any year would be able to further their careers within universities, even if they were qualified to do so.

Hourly paid teaching staff, another large group of employees on fixed-term contracts, often have jobs elsewhere, as computer consultants, journalists etc. They are vital to universities committed to vocational study because of the professional expertise and fresh, real-work experience they can bring and because the demand for the courses they teach tends to fluctuate from year to year.

Employment legislation has always allowed for the use of fixed-term contracts for people to undertake specific time-limited projects. Staff accepting such contracts are aware at the outset that by their nature, they will expire at a predefined date. Some argue that universities' insertion of clauses into such contracts waiving employees' legal protection against redundancy allows employers to sack staff unfairly, but this is nonsense.

Waiver clauses, as they are called, do not remove the employee's right to complain of unfair dismissal if their contract is terminated arbitrarily. They apply only at the point of expiry when the contracts would be expected to expire anyway.

Likewise, it is a quirk of the way our employment law has developed that the expiry of a fixed-term contract of two years or more is technically regarded as a "redundancy", for which compensation is due. As a consequence, the contracts of fixed-term staff need to include a clause protecting employers from these additional costs.

Abolishing waiver clauses would have a direct impact on universities' competitiveness. Highly sought-after commercial research contracts pay only for predefined outcomes over a specific period. Sponsors will not take on additional liability for redundancy payments. This means that if universities want to cover redundancy payments for fixed-term staff at the end of contracts, they will have to use other income, most likely public funding provided for teaching.

In a typical large research university the additional redundancy payments arising from the expiry of fixed-term research contracts would amount to Pounds 125,000 per year. Why should private research be subsidised from public funding provided for teaching? The inevitable consequence would be to put other jobs at risk.

The unions are opposed to casualisation and, fair enough, there have been some abuses within the sector that should stop. But is it not ironic that it is the very inflexibility of the inherited contractual rights of many core academic staff, who have more protection than workers in other sectors - including the priesthood - that has provided much of the drive for casualisation?

Larry Bunt is personnel director at the University of Westminster and chair of the Universities Personnel Association.

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