Research funders urged to act on short-term contracts

Staff covering for academics on leave are often given no time to conduct research themselves

August 8, 2017
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Research funders have been told that they have a responsibility to help tackle the growing use of precarious short-term contracts in the humanities.

More than 1,800 people have signed an open letter that says that funding bodies, when awarding grants for research leave, should stipulate that the person hired to cover the resulting vacancy “should be appointed on the same structural terms”.

For example, if the academic going on leave is on a teaching and research contract, their replacement should be also; and that, if they are going on leave for 12 months, their cover should last for this duration too.

The request is designed to address the problem of universities hiring early career academics to cover leave on part-time contracts, or contracts that finish at the end of term, leaving them little or no time to be able to conduct research, which is vital if they are to have a chance of getting a permanent job.

Research published by the University and College Union last year found that 58 per cent of the UK’s lecturers, research fellows, researchers and teaching fellows were on fixed-term contracts; while, for teaching and research assistants, this figure rose to 76 per cent. Just 12 per cent of professors and 8 per cent of senior/principal lecturers, readers or principal research fellows are on fixed-term contracts, according to data from the Higher Education Statistics Agency.

Emilie Murphy, lecturer in early modern history at the University of York and one of the coordinators of the letter, said that the sector needed to work together to reduce the use of precarious short-term contracts.

“People on these contracts have a reduced chance of getting a permanent job because, a lot of the time, these contracts don’t include any time for research,” she said. “It has an impact on individual researchers, but it also has a broader impact because we are driving really promising people out of academia.”

Dr Murphy said that researchers from poorer backgrounds or with caring or family responsibilities were particularly disadvantaged, since they were less likely to be able to fund their own research activities or relocate at short notice.

“Everybody needs to work together on this issue, rather than continue to blame each other,” Dr Murphy added. “If funding bodies mandated that a person replacing an individual on leave had to be put on the same terms, it would force departments’ and institutions’ hands, and help to catalyse a change that is needed.”

The letter, which is being sent to funding bodies, vice-chancellors and ministers, acknowledges that fixed-term contracts have a place in academia.

But it says that institutions should follow the code of good practice published by the Royal Historical Society in 2014. Among other things, this called for temporary teaching staff to be given mentorship for research development and assistance in preparing funding applications, and for fractional teaching contracts to include time for preparation and marking.

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