Dr Alan Williams is president of the Manchester Association of University Teachers (AUT) and a former member and chair of the national AUT Contract Research Staff Committee. He's now a lecturer in the department of computer science at the University of Manchester, where he previously held the positions of contract researcher and temporary lecturer.
Over the past two decades in the United Kingdom, the number of staff employed on fixed-term contracts in higher education has been spiraling out of control. In some universities, already more than 60% of academic and academic-related staff are on fixed-term contracts. A large proportion of these are contract research staff (CRS *)--people who are nearly always employed on fixed-term contracts and who now number almost 40,000.
With CRS being largely employed on time-limited grants awarded by external funding bodies on a competitive basis, it may appear inevitable that contracts will be fixed-term. Certainly the 1996 Concordat, an agreement between representatives of institutions and the principal funding bodies on how to manage CRS, made this assumption. It set out explicitly not to reduce casualisation and simply required the vast majority of CRS to move out of higher education. It merely attempted to improve management and working conditions for casualised staff, but it has largely failed to do so.
The recently published SET for Success report by Sir Gareth Roberts contains a depressingly similar theme. To fix the perceived lack of career structure for CRS it proposes a model with three parallel tracks. One is for those who are identified as providing useful expertise, for example by supporting the use of specialist equipment. Those CRS would be retained on open-ended contracts. The second track is for research "stars" who wish to move on to lecturing posts. The third--and by far the largest--track is for those who will have to leave academia for the wider economy after one or at most two contracts. Perhaps even more worryingly, the Roberts review portrays CRS largely as young trainees working under the supervision of lecturers and engaged because of their specialist skills that are suitable for one specific research project.
Still, the Roberts review did lead to an inquiry into the use of short-term contracts in science and engineering by the House of Commons Science and Technology Select Committee, which posed refreshingly open-ended questions. It invited a group of CRS to an oral evidence session, along with the vice-chancellors and principals group Universities UK (UUK), Sir Gareth Roberts, and the two main unions, the AUT and the National Association of Teachers in Further and Higher Education.
All CRS witnesses spoke of the serious damage, both personal and professional, caused by fixed-term contracts, which are a potential vehicle for discrimination, bullying, low pay, and loss of academic freedom. None of the witnesses supported the Roberts career model, believing that it was little more than a "rebadging" of the existing situation, with the three tracks corresponding to technicians, personal fellows, and CRS. The AUT also highlighted the hidden costs of casualisation, such as the loss of expertise and disruption of the research programme when CRS are forced to leave academia.
When asked whether or not it was addressing the problem, UUK attempted to rely almost exclusively on the failed Concordat as evidence that it was. Of particular concern, when asked about the disproportionate impact of fixed-term contracts on women, UUK claimed that they had not accumulated sufficient data over the past few years to draw a definite picture, even after all this time.
It seems that universities are still very reluctant even to acknowledge the root of the problem, let alone look for viable solutions. They would rather maintain the existing system, regarding CRS as second-class citizens and treating them as commodities. At the same time as CRS are being shown the door, their research output is used to boost Research Assessment Exercise returns, thereby earning the university additional support from the government.
The Science and Technology Committee inquiry represents a significant breakthrough, building on recent debates on casualisation in higher education in both the Scottish Parliament and the House of Lords. At last the message from CRS and the unions is beginning to get through.
In the past, the Universities and Colleges Employers Association ( UCEA) has treated CRS as a special case, in which fixed-term contracts would be the norm due to finite funding. However, UCEA has just produced a Guide on Fixed Term Contracts, the result of negotiations with the unions. This still identifies CRS as a special case, but this time for the purposes of tackling casualisation within an existing group of researchers, for example by looking for alternative funding within the university or by using redeployment.
And new fixed-term work regulations introduced by the Department of Trade and Industry have just come into force. They require that fixed-term contract staff have terms and conditions that are no less favourable than those of comparable staff on open-ended contracts. They also limit the use of successive fixed-term contracts to 4 years and recognise for the first time that open-ended contracts should be the norm.
Close inspection of today's CRS population reveals that a model portraying them as junior trainees is no longer accurate, if indeed it ever was. The truth is, it would be difficult to distinguish between the roles undertaken by CRS and lecturers. Research is generally delivered by teams of staff, including lecturers and CRS, who work together over a long period with each member contributing in a variety of different ways. Externally funded research projects are essentially the vehicle for maintaining the group. Each new project is likely to build on existing work, so it is important that the research team is kept together rather than requiring a new team for each new project.
Although research teams should be flexible, fixed-term contracts are precisely the opposite, because the predetermined end date leaves no room for changes in a research schedule. Worse, there is a high risk that CRS will leave before work is properly complete, taking away their skills, damaging the group's international reputation, and creating significant difficulties for the research group leader. At the very least, CRS may well be spending rather a lot of time looking for alternative work as their contract nears its end, even though it may be extended eventually.
The solution is clear: Remove the artificial distinction that currently exists between lecturers and CRS and employ CRS on open-ended contracts from the start. Of course, this may require some amount of rethinking of the current employment "culture" in universities, and of their financial models, and so on.
However, this is certainly not impossible to achieve. Recently we have seen Robert Gordon University in Scotland take the first steps toward introducing such changes. Individual units in other universities are also beginning to recognise the perils of casualisation and the benefits of change. Not before time. If nothing is done to reverse the destructive tide of casualisation that has been sweeping through higher education over the last 2 decades, then academic research will simply fail to attract graduates and postgraduates. The current severe recruitment and retention problems will only get worse. The very future of higher education is at stake.
* CRS are often referred to as 'postdocs', although this is actually inaccurate given that not every CRS has a PhD. This term is also often perceived as demeaning, an attempt to indicate that CRS are always junior, young trainees--essentially glorified students.