Will Devolution Deliver for Scotland's Contract Researchers?

It is often said in Scotland that devolution took longer than evolution. And when you consider the number of discussions, false starts, conventions, commitments, and debates that took place before the Scottish Parliament finally came into being in 1999, it's easy to understand why. So spare a thought for those individuals working as contract research staff (CRS) in higher education and research bodies in Scotland, because they too have been fighting for a better deal for decades. But, unlike the advocates of devolution, CRS have been getting nowhere fast.

The problem is straightforward enough: Years of poor management and poor conditions have taken their toll not only on highly talented individuals--that is, Scotland's best and brightest--who work as CRS, but on Scottish society and the economy too. You do not have to have a degree to realise that when 90% of CRS are on insecure fixed contracts, it means that 90% of CRS are faced with job insecurity, low pay, and poor working rights and conditions.

These difficulties, in turn, affect teaching and research standards: CRS's low morale and sense that they are being undervalued inevitably filters down to the students themselves. And these adverse effects are becoming more and more of a problem, given that more and more CRS are taking on teaching responsibilities to plug the gaps left by academics who have been diverted into administrative and management tasks. Therefore, education itself suffers because of the appalling treatment of CRS. It also logically follows that wasting the nation's highly educated workers-graduates, postgraduates, and postdocs-is detrimental not only to Scotland's universities, but also to the economy.

That is why I have put forward a motion in the Scottish Parliament regarding CRS in Scottish Higher Education (see sidebar below). If it is selected for debate, Members of Scottish Parliament (MSPs) will be able to discuss and highlight the issue. Members' debates cannot effect change directly; they do not end with a vote. But they are significant and can certainly reflect the mood of the chamber. Some debates have caused sufficient interest, on issues such as domestic violence, to prompt the executive to initiate a wider debate. A debate on CRS is long, long overdue and would mark an opportunity to promote discussion with Scotland's universities, the Scottish Higher Education Funding Council, and Wendy Alexander, the minister for enterprise and lifelong learning.

Motion Regarding Contract Research Staff

That the Parliament recognises that contract research staff in Scotland's universities and research institutes are one of the most significant assets in Scotland's knowledge economy; notes that more than 90% of such staff are employed on insecure fixed term contracts, resulting in a systematic failure to properly exploit our science and social science base to the benefit of the Scottish economy and society; further notes that this highly educated human resource, comprising graduate, postgraduate and postdoctoral level workers, is subject to constant wastage, to the detriment of Scotland's universities and economic potential; and believes that the Scottish Executive should act with clarity, urgency and determination to secure a complete overhaul of the management of the contract research workforce with a view to eliminating the current insecurity and wastage and establishing a radical new approach in partnership with higher education employers and representatives of the research staff.

Devolution has certainly given us the chance here in Scotland to air problems more easily. But it is solutions we're all after, and quickly. Luckily, there is an air of dynamism and activity just now, but it must be seized on, because--politics being politics--things can change suddenly. As it stands, universities are not directly answerable to the minister for lifelong learning. Therefore, if the minister wants to reform CRS conditions, she will have to go through the Scottish Higher Education Funding Council (SHEFC). This lack of direct responsibility will be a problem, if we let it. The minister has made some encouraging remarks, criticising universities' poor management of CRS. If Parliament and its committees speak out strongly on this matter, it may give the minister the impetus she needs to act. That's why I am keen to secure cross-party support for the motion and tap into the strong consensus for reform that already exists outside of Parliament. A lot of you no doubt feel very strongly on this matter, so why don't you lobby your MP or MSP about how he or she might effect change.

No matter what solution is put forward, though, it is vital that it be presented as a positive move. This is not about eroding universities' autonomy, centralising control, or promoting government interference. Everyone has to realise that we, as a nation, will benefit from having a more settled, content research staff base. It's also important to stress that this is not just a matter of more money; it is largely a matter of spending our money more efficiently and effectively--in other words, making sure we get a bang for our buck. When we are talking about giving CRS a better deal, we are also talking about how we presently run and fund higher education, because the two are inextricably linked. As convenor of the Enterprise and Lifelong Learning Committee, which has just embarked on its Lifelong Learning Inquiry, I hope that the CRS issue will be raised, dealt with, and ultimately solved in the not-too-distant future.

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