The fixed-term licence for bullies

April 3, 1998

Fixed-term contracts have been part of the university system for decades. Properly used they will always have a place. Unfortunately, universities are no longer the experts on fixed-term contracts. They have become the worst abusers of them.

Occasional lapses have always happened and can be dealt with as part of normal industrial relations. However, universities now use fixed-term contracts as a way of exerting power and control over staff.

All employers were encouraged to "deregulate" in the 1980s and most universities did. It is now a way of life. The justification used is that universities are about innovation and change, and it is vital to have a mobile and flexible workforce to facilitate this. "We do not want to go back to the 1960s where everyone had tenure and we now have a generation of fifty-somethings in the system we would dearly like to get rid of."

Vice-chancellors will point to themselves as examples of fixed-term contracts, which raises a hollow laugh among those who do not enjoy the same compensatory salary levels or pension packages when their contracts are not renewed. The over-use of fixed-term contracts is an inefficient form of management. It does not foster loyalty or enthusiasm (except the frantic, insincere kind just before the end of a contract). It encourages sloppy management because you do not have to bother with the normal day-to-day chore of ensuring that people are performing adequately or disciplining them when they fall short of the mark.

You simply console yourself with the thought that in x months' time you need not renew that person's contract. It can be a way of controlling behaviour and ensuring conformity, surely a dangerous thing in universities when financial pressures are also pushing us down that road.

Worst of all is the impact on the individual academic concerned who goes through various phases that range from hypermanic activity through to acute anxiety, fawning sycophancy and sullen resentment.

But surely employment law will protect individuals from the worst excesses of university management, particularly after the first two years? (Before that you cannot go to an industrial tribunal unless there is a sexual or racial dimension.) Well, universities have refined the torture to invent the instrument of a waiver clause. The individual, on appointment, signs away rights to any claims against unfair dismissal. Of course, the individual can always refuse to sign it or alternatively write in "signed under duress" but how many will if they are desperate for a job or live in hope that it will lead to better things?

The waiver clause is the ultimate branding iron for control freaks. You do not have to be a good manager. You can bully and harass to your heart's content. Some managers enjoy it so much it should be illegal.

At European level we are about to enter negotiations between the social partners to work out a framework agreement on fixed-term contracts. It may take some time to work its way through the system, but it will happen. Although our friends in Europe cannot understand how we have reached such anarchy in our industrial relations in the United Kingdom, they are already seized of the importance of dealing with the notorious waiver clause.

Within the UK we look forward to the government's white paper on fairness at work. Job security and extended rights to claim against unfair dismissal are essential if we are to restore some semblance of dignity and respect at work.

That is just as important in universities as on the factory floor or in the burger bar. A vulnerable worker is not the best worker and managers should not mistake sullen silence for acceptance.

Rita Donaghy is permanent secretary of the Institute of Education student union, and a member of the national executive of Unison, the TUC general council, and the European TUC executive.

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