The shift to permanent contracts is accelerating, Melanie Newman and Anthea Lipsett report
Universities are finally acting to reduce the number of casual contracts that have blighted the careers of researchers for years, new figures show.
The proportion of research-only academics on fixed-term contracts fell from 94.1 per cent in 2002 to 84.7 per cent in 2006, according to an analysis of official figures by the University and College Union.
Union leaders and employers this week predicted that the decline would accelerate. They said it signalled a shift towards job security for researchers as universities wake up to last year's new equal rights laws for casual staff and realise the business benefits of putting key staff into secure employment.
"We are seeing the emergence of good practice," said Stephen Court, senior researcher for the UCU, who analysed Higher Education Statistics Agency figures for The Times Higher . "Some employers are really aiming to change the culture and give research-only academics security."
The UCU said some employers had reduced their use of temporary contracts in advance of the European regulations, which came into effect last year.
These mean that employees with four years' continuous service on two or more contracts now automatically become permanent staff unless there is a good reason for keeping them as casuals.
But there are signs that universities are making strategic decisions to improve job security in a sector that was condemned by the House of Commons Science and Technology Select Committee in 2001 for employing more staff on casual contracts than any other industry except hotel and catering.
Robert Gordon University, which has more research-only staff on permanent contracts than any other, said it had made job security for research staff a central human resources policy.
Universities with the most research staff on fixed-term contracts, including the London School of Economics, said they were moving them to permanent posts. Leicester University said it had reduced the proportion of researchers on fixed-term contracts from 98.3 per cent in 2005 to 94.4 per cent in January 2007 and promised further change.