Tackling use of fixed-term contracts ‘priority’ for Russell Group

Statement issued as union claims fears of ‘reputational damage’ have forced leading UK universities to act

March 4, 2020
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The UK’s most prestigious universities have said that addressing their use of short-term contracts is a “priority”, after a leaked document indicated that they were concerned about “reputational damage” stemming from the debate.

In a statement, the Russell Group said it recognised that “overreliance on some forms of employment models and associated contractual arrangements may not serve the best interests of staff, for example in supporting their development and career aspirations. Ultimately, they may also impact on the wider academic mission and the staff and student experience at university.”

More than 50,000 staff at the Russell Group’s 24 member institutions – 27 per cent of the total workforce – were on fixed-term contracts in 2017-18. This has increased by 31 per cent since 2012-13 while at other universities the number of staff on fixed-term contracts decreased by 7 per cent, to 21 per cent of the total.

In its statement, the mission group said that there was “an urgent need and an opportunity to address these challenges” and that a working group of senior leaders would “look to develop a set of principles we can all use from the start of the next academic year”.

“We have already started sharing our expertise and experiences and we have agreed this is a priority for our universities in 2020,” the statement said.

The statement was issued against the backdrop of strike action at 74 UK universities, now in its third week, with casualisation a key plank of employees’ concerns.

It was released after the University and College Union published leaked minutes of a Russell Group meeting discussing the issue and the statement that has now been released. The minutes say that Russell Group universities “need to show leadership in this debate, both as part of their duties as responsible employers and in order to avoid further reputational damage”.

The Russell Group document acknowledges that short-term contracts may be a driver of declining staff mental health and may force some academics out of the sector – with a knock-on impact on student learning.

Jo Grady, the UCU general secretary, said that the report “shows some universities do understand the extent of casualisation in our institutions, and the serious damage it does to the health of staff and education of students”.

“Sadly, it looks like it is fear of reputational damage, rather than concern for staff or students, that has prompted universities to act on casualisation,” Dr Grady said.

Tim Bradshaw, the Russell Group’s chief executive, said that members of the mission group had been “having genuine discussions…for a number of months on how to develop and share best practice as good employers”.

“The agenda paper now online is an internal document intended to stimulate discussion,” he said.

The leaked paper says that casualisation may have been caused by staff numbers failing to keep pace with growing student enrolment, the fixed-term nature of research grants, and the uncertainty of sector financial planning.

A UCU survey of 3,802 members on “casualised” contracts, published last year, found that 71 percent of respondents said that their mental health had been affected by the stress of working on an insecure contract.


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