Short-term scandal in our universities

July 3, 1998

When tenure was abolished in the old universities for all those appointed or promoted after 1987 it was said that the then growing habit of hiring staff on limited-term contracts would decline. After all, it had been developed to escape the inflexibilities of tenure. But, on the contrary, it is increasing at an alarming rate.

The reason is not hard to find. Demands on universities are changing rapidly. Government grants are annual, variable and not enough. To keep afloat universities have been forced into treating staff like lump labour in the docks - hire them when the demand is there, lay them off when it is not.

Research assessment exercises have led to the infamous transfer market in top researchers as institutions try to push up research ratings in the five-yearly contests. Research assessments have also led to rigorous pruning of contract staff, who do more teaching than research, to make room to hire researchers.

A case can perhaps be made for hiring research-only young staff on short contracts to work on projects funded for a limited period. This is in the nature of research training and funding and may have to be accepted, up to a point, when people are establishing a reputation. It becomes a serious problem when this pattern is repeated for years on end. And it would become much worse if the Treasury were to get its way and insist on all research funding being channelled through the research councils for particular projects.

Not every wannabe researcher will make the grade as an academic researcher and some would be better off finding jobs elsewhere. But there must be a reasonable career path for those who are willing to accept the depressing levels of pay to make a career as academics - and that means offering permanent jobs with the level of security enjoyed by staff elsewhere.

The real scandal is not, however, with high-flying researchers. It is with badly paid part-time and short contract teaching staff. These are people who are hired to cope with burgeoning numbers of students at the least cost without their employers making any commitment to them. Sometimes they are brought in to free research time for established members of staff. Sometimes this will be the price of attracting academic stars: it happens a lot in the United States.

All too often people hired on these contracts are women whose wish to have time at home in school holidays is exploited shamelessly, and who may have given up good jobs to keep their families together when a partner moved to another part of the country. (Men do this too, of course, but not so often.) Teaching-only contract staff are woefully badly paid, are often employed on term time-only contracts and are too often denied the normal protections of employment law.

Two things may conspire to reduce these pernicious practices. The excuse of uncertain funding should diminish if the government means what it says and sets spending plans for three years ahead instead of one. There may not be enough money but it should be evident how much there will be. The second factor is Europe. European rules will come increasingly into force, making it much more difficult to do some staff out of employment rights enjoyed by others.

Perhaps the two together will spur more higher education employers into following the example of the best and treating staff better.

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