Select Committee on Science and Technology Eighth Report


40. The plight of CRS has been recognised for several years. A number of initiatives and reviews have addressed the problem.

Concordat and the Research Careers Initiative

41. In 1996 the major UK research funders - but not the Higher Education Funding Councils signed "A Concordat to Provide a Framework for the Career Management of Contract Research Staff in Universities and Colleges". It set "standards for the career management and conditions of employment of researchers employed by universities and colleges on fixed-term or similar contracts and funded through research grants or analogous schemes".

42. The Research Careers Initiative (RCI) was set up in 1997 to monitor progress towards meeting the commitments of the Concordat and to identify and to encourage good practice in the career management and development of CRS. The secretariat of the RCI is shared between OST (for the funders) and Universities UK (for the institutions). Sir Gareth Roberts chairs the board.[98] We have heard criticism that the board is comprised of director generals, chief executives and vice chancellors who are too far removed from the problems faced by CRS.[99] An interim report of the RCI, published in September 2001, found that progress had been made:

  • there was top-level commitment;
  • there was greater attention to human resource development;
  • measures were being tested to enable institutions to evaluate their performance in managing staff;
  • institutions' policies, practices and provision provided a good basis for the further push that was needed;
  • a clearer, stronger career structure for research staff, with pathways leading inside and outside higher education, was emerging.

The final report of the RCI will, we understand, be published in November 2002.

43. The more positive comments on the RCI say that results have been patchy but that they are steps in the right direction. There is an appreciation by some researchers that career guidance has improved.[100] Many CRS have never heard of the Concordat and the RCI, though of course this does not mean that they have not benefited.[101]

44. At the other end of the spectrum, the Concordat and the RCI are accused of having no effect or failing to address the underlying problems. Dr M Salter maintains that the RCI "is merely a smoke screen to suggest that something is being done" and that responding to the RCI questionnaire is like "a kind of research groundhog day".[102] The Royal Geographic Society argues that the RCI has failed as it has never been properly funded.[103] One CRS describes it as "a thinly dressed recipe for telling people without permanent jobs that they were unlikely to get one within the university and should look elsewhere for a proper career".[104] Colin Bryson argues that the RCI has failed as it did not "change any of the key parameters and forces that maintain the current system".[105] This has been recognised by the University of Leeds: while the RCI and Concordat "help to alleviate some of the problems associated with the preponderance of fixed-term research staff, they do not help to solve them".[106] The Prospect union tells us that the RCI has made useful progress in universities but that little impression has been made on public sector research establishments, where it represents many reseachers.[107] The Concordat and the Research Careers Initiative have focused on managing the problem rather than solving it.

45. Sir Gareth Roberts does not try to overplay its achievements. In the Roberts Review, he says the RCI "has led most universities to review and to some extent improve [our italics] their procedures and their pattern of employment of CRS".[108] It has been established that some institutions are not implementing the RCI and Sir Gareth professed himself "frustrated" at the lack of progress so far.[109] Professor Breakwell, Vice Chancellor of Bath University, said "We are rewarded through HEFCE for developing effective human resource strategies [to be compliant with the RCI]. There is a big incentive to universities to do this well. It baffles me, the suggestion that universities would not be responding to that incentive. It makes no sense. It makes no business sense".[110] We can only conclude that there are quite a few universities run by people with no sense. Professor Breakwell told us that Bath University is now fully compliant with the RCI.[111] Others, it seems, have only acted under the "dripping tap pressure" applied by RCI coordinators.[112] Sir Gareth accepted that there needed to be a degree of compulsion: "I really do believe ... that the secret is the EC directive making sure that universities do comply by [the RCI] and having the funding councils having this stick that says, 'If you do not manage staff properly there will be a penalty'.[113] It seems that some universities will do little positive to address the issue of CRS unless forced by law or financial penalty. Unless those failing to comply with the Research Careers Initiative are named and shamed, it will continue to lack the teeth it needs to make a real difference.

46. We understand that action on CRS will continue after the RCI has finished. The proposal that a subgroup of the Science and Engineering Base funders' forum, announced in the strategy for science, should take over the role of the RCI seems sensible. Any new body set up to tackle the issue of research careers must include the contract researchers themselves. The group must not be divorced from the reality of their situation.

47. Sir Gareth suggested to us that there should be a "Concordat Mark II" which "covers high level principles for human resource development in research, covering not only CRS but all university staff from postgraduates through to established academics.[114] Since not much has changed since 1996, we are unclear what the purpose of this would be unless it recognised the need to reduce the numbers of CRS and placed an obligation on all parties to work towards this end. In reality the efforts of UCEA and the unions to get together to resolve the issue is much more valuable. We will of course await Sir Gareth's suggestions for a new Concordat with great interest. Any new Concordat must build on the best aspects of the first but it must not be simply a funders' charter. Its signatories must come from all the key players, including government, unions, the funding councils and the researchers themselves, and its fine words must be backed up with a clear implementation strategy to make sure things really do change this time.

The Dearing Report

48. The National Committee of Inquiry into Higher Education (the Dearing Committee) considered the issue of CRS in 1997, stating that "this practice may have a detrimental effect on the quality of higher education institutions' activities".[115] It did not make detailed proposals but stated: "We recommend to the higher education employers that they appoint, after consultation with staff representatives, an independent review committee to report by April 1998 on the framework for determining pay and conditions of service".[116]

The Bett Report

49. In response to the Dearing Report's recommendation, the Independent Review of Higher Education Pay and Conditions, chaired by Sir Michael Bett, was set up by the Universities and Colleges Employers Association. Its report was published in June 1999. The report argued that there was scope for universities to reduce their use of fixed-term employment and that they should offer redundancy pay on contracts of longer than one year.[117] It recommended more competitive salaries for young lecturers and a review of the procedures used by pre-1992 universities to deal with disciplinary and redundancy issues.

Excellence and Opportunity

50. The Government's science White Paper Excellence and Opportunity, published in July 2000, acknowledged the problem of CRS.[118] It stated "Young people need to be able to see that jobs in university research lead somewhere - whether within academia or to careers outside". It encouraged the Funding and Research Councils to develop:

  • "targets for, and better monitoring of, institutional performance in managing contract staff;
  • recognition and reward schemes for the development of researchers;
  • promotion of relevant evaluation and best practice models; and
  • better provision and co­ordination of career guidance and staff development resources."

Our predecessor Committee

51. Our predecessor Committee considered the research career issue in its 2001 report Are We Realising Our Potential?[119] It concluded that the lack of career path for postdoctoral researchers was damaging: "The Government can no longer afford to ignore the problem of low pay and poor job security for these researchers and support staff. A shortage of skilled personnel threatens to undermine its commitment to strengthening the science base". It also called for research career paths and more research-only professorships.

SET for Success (The Roberts Review)

52. In March 2001, Sir Gareth Roberts was asked by the Chancellor of the Exchequer and the Secretaries of State for Trade and Industry and for Education and Skills to undertake a review into the supply of science and engineering skills in the UK. Part of his report, SET for Success, which was published on 15 April 2002, considered the issue of contract research staff.[120] It proposed:

  • the development of a range of career trajectories and clear career structures for those employed as CRS, including greater use of permanent contracts for researchers;
  • the inclusion of earmarked funding for training and professional development in all grants or contracts that provide for the employment of CRS;
  • enhanced salaries for CRS funded by Research Councils, particularly in disciplines where there are shortages due to high market demand, and greater possibilities for salary progression within contract research; and
  • more market-related salaries for key academic staff ,which should benefit scientists and engineers, particularly those engaged in research of international quality.

53. The Roberts Review identifies three kinds of CRS:

  • career starters, typically in their first or second contract, who enter contract research to gain experience leading to a continuing academic position or a more permanent research career, and typically stay as CRS for only a short period;
  • career researchers, who have worked as CRS over a longer period and wish to remain in research, ideally in an academic environment; and
  • job entrants, who may enter contract research as a job, but not explicitly to make a career in research, and who may or may not remain in research or in related academic work.

54. Three career trajectories are suggested by the Roberts Review. After the first contract, a researcher chooses which path to follow.

  • The industrial trajectory. After a short period of contract research in academia, the researcher would move to employment in industry. This is the Review's preferred 'default option'.
  • The academic trajectory. Appraisal at an early stage would identify the minority suitable for an academic career in a research-active teaching role. It might require universities to underwrite salaries to retain such researchers.
  • The research associate trajectory. This is for those who do not want an academic career but not for those who fail in this pursuit. Such researchers would be awarded permanent positions as researchers, supported by external research contracts.

55. While, the Roberts Review's attempt to define career trajectories has been welcomed by some,[121] Dr John Sawyer's view was that "I think it pretty much legitimises the status quo. I do not think it changes anything.".[122] Dr Alan Williams of the AUT, despite welcoming the Review's analysis of the issues, argued that its solutions were misconceived as "its underlying model is trying to keep a separate identity for what CRS do and what academic staff do".[123] Sir Gareth wants the industrial trajectory to be the default option,[124] but as Colin Bryson points out "it is the academic research that is the desired objective, not a post in industry".[125]

56. Research Councils UK suggests that there would need to be more flexibility with the trajectories since many CRS aspire to being independent researchers and would not view the "research associate" trajectory as a career option, feeling that they would be considered as "methodologists" or "technologists".[126] Dr Clare Goodess feels that while the trajectory offers the advantage of offering permanent employment, "it does not match the reality of what senior contract researchers do".[127] Dr Eva Link points that out "These people even today are offered permanent contracts from the university because they are a technical part of the research".[128] The Roberts Review maintains that researchers following this trajectory could still go on to become lecturers or heads of department but is unclear how they would get the experience and the opportunity to make this step. As Dr Bryn Jones from Nottingham University points out, this is already a problem for postdocs who are unable to apply for grants.[129]

57. Sir Gareth mentioned to us the decline of the corporate research laboratory and the poor investment in research and development by UK industry.[130] His wish that the industrial career become the default option for a researcher must be based on the hope that this trend in industry will be reversed. We note the Government's introduction of an R&D tax credit and hope that it has the desired effect. While we are unconvinced that many of our CRS will jump at the chance of working in a corporate laboratory, we see the value in having this option open to them.

Fixed Term Employees (Prevention of Less Favourable Treatment) Regulations

58. The Government has transposed the European Commission Fixed Term Work Directive into UK law through the Fixed-Term Employees (Prevention of Less Favourable Treatment) Regulations 2002. These were approved by Parliament on 16 July 2002 after the 2002 Employment Bill had received Royal Assent, and came into force on 1 October 2002. The Regulations aim to prevent fixed term employees being less favourably treated than comparable permanent employees and the abuse of successive fixed term contracts. This will give CRS the right to treatment equal to that of permanent staff doing the same or broadly similar work, in matters such as redundancy payments and the right to claim unfair dismissal.

59. The Regulations are not designed to eliminate the use of fixed term appointments. They place no limit on the length of the first fixed term appointment; but any further contract awarded four years or more after the first must be considered open-ended, unless there are objective reasons why this should not be the case. As the regulations are not retrospective this provision will come into effect only for those contracts reaching their four year point in 2006. What constitutes an 'objective reason' may have to be tested in the courts. The four-year limit can be varied by workplace or collective agreements. The Regulations will have financial implications for universities since CRS will no longer be able to waive their right to statutory redundancy payments.

60. An effect of the Employment Regulations 2002 will be to make redundancy payments a right for all fixed term researchers when their contracts come to an end. This will have an impact on universities who will have to make provision for these payments. Universities will have to make financial provision for redundancy payments and this must be taken into account by both public and private funders of research.

61. There is scepticism among researchers about the implementation of the Employment Regulations. Dr Clare Goodess told us that they would be a good thing if they were not misused by universities: "There is a lot of unease among researchers because they feel that universities will use any excuse they can. I think there is a concern that people will be pushed out after two years or four years. Hopefully the universities will apply it seriously".[131] Mr Andrew Pike of NATFHE felt that the EU Directive was being transposed reluctantly, claiming that: "The protection afforded to employees under the new regulations is far less than you will find in other EU states".[132] Not surprisingly, there is a cynical attitude among CRS towards the universities.[133] If progress is to be made HEIs will have to build the trust of CRS.

62. The Institute of Biology and its affiliated societies are concerned that the Employment Regulations will not benefit CRS, since it may simply mean that HEIs will not renew a contract, when previously it would have done, for fear of having to employ the researcher on an open-ended contract and the financial obligation that that entails.[134] Universities must not see Employment Regulations 2002 as an excuse to refuse to renew existing contracts or to award a researcher a new one so that the four­year limit is not reached.

Fixed­Term and Casual Employment: Guidance for Higher Education Institutions

63. The Joint Negotiating Committee for Higher Education Staff (JNCHES), comprised of the University and Colleges Employers' Association and the nationally recognised unions,[135] published Fixed­Term and Casual Employment: Guidance for Higher Education Institutions in June 2002 in response to the Draft Employment Regulations. The document's purpose is to:

  • To provide guidance in implementing the Regulations by reducing the existing number of researchers on fixed term contracts
  • To encourage institutions to employ staff on indefinite contracts
  • To identify and assist the development of good practice.

The Guidelines recommend that all possible sources of external and internal funding are investigated and that redeployment should be explored before redundancy is considered.

64. The JNCHES Guidance has been described by Colin Bryson, a researcher into higher education employment at Nottingham Trent University, as expressing "stronger sentiments than any previous agreement on the regulation of employment in universities".[136] However, he is concerned by the breadth of the objective justifications used not to transfer a CRS to an open-ended contract:

"The problem of allowing such scope is that given the current poor quality of management systems and the resilience of cultures inimical to good employment practices, widespread use of fixed term contracts and serial abuse is likely to continue".

Professor Bryson is concerned that in "institutions that already have reasonable systems they will not make a great deal of difference and in those with the worst practices (sadly the majority) they are quite likely to be ignored".[137]

A revised Model Statute

65. Mandatory disciplinary, grievance, redundancy and appeals procedures for academic, research and other related staff in all pre­1992 universities are set down in the Model Statute procedure. These were introduced by the Government at the time under sections 202­208 of the Education Reform Act 1988 in order to dispose of academic tenure while continuing to protect academic freedom and fair treatment of staff.[138] The procedures have proved to be prescriptive, legalistic, lengthy and expensive to operate. As a result, universities rarely use them and instead, where posts are funded by short­term monies, use a short­term contract that matches the duration of the funding.[139] The Bett Report recommended that universities update their model statute procedures in order to reduce the number of fixed­term posts.[140]

66. A revised Model Statute has been drafted to encourage universities to make more use of permanent contracts in the knowledge that normal and fair procedures could be used at the end of a grant or the completion of the project. It also includes a separate procedure for the expiry of fixed­term contracts. These procedures would include looking for alternative funding to continue the work or, if the work is ended, redeployment for staff. The reasons for not renewing the fixed­term appointment must fall within prescribed grounds. If the revised Model Statute is agreed by the Privy Council, individual universities will be expected to amend their own statutes in accordance with it and then to apply to the Privy Council for individual approval. Having an agreed model to follow should mean that individual approval is quick and efficient. We are disappointed that this reform has taken so long. If the Model Statute has been an obstacle to reducing the number of CRS, it begs the question as to why universities have made no attempt to reform it before.

67. Colin Bryson is concerned that the revised Model Statute goes too far in facilitating the redundancies of CRS, suggesting that it offers "staff on fixed term contracts much less protection from dismissal than staff on open ended contracts". He maintains that "the employer can avoid any obligation to renew or convert the contract, or to seriously address redeployment or mitigation of loss of employment issues by invoking a wide range of justifications which arguably could be used on almost every occasion".[141] We recommend that the Government monitor the effect of the revised Model Statute and consider the use of safeguards to prevent its abuse.

2002 Spending Review and Investing in Innovation

68. In the 2002 Spending Review[142] and Investing in Innovation - A strategy for science, engineering and technology, both published in July 2002,[143] the Government broadly accepts the findings of the Roberts Review and expresses the need to increase the attractiveness of scientific careers. The strategy for science outlined three areas of policy relevant to CRS:

  • better salaries for postdoctoral researchers;
  • clear career paths for postdoctoral researchers into business R&D and academia;
  • improved conditions of employment.

69. It set out three specific measures:

  • to increase the average Research Council postdoctoral salary by around £4,000 by 2005­06;
  • to provide additional funding to the Research Councils to deliver additional training for CRS;
  • to create 1,000 new academic fellowships over five years to provide more stable and attractive routes into academia.

70. The 2002 Spending Review also announced extra funds for the Research Councils to enable them to pay a higher proportion of the indirect costs of the research they fund (currently 46%), as an attempt to rebalance the Dual Support system.

71. The Spending Review and the Strategy for Science contain some commitments to positive action to address the problems of contract researchers. We will monitor their effectiveness with interest.

72. The number of written submissions to the inquiry and the strong views held by contract researchers who appeared before us demonstrates that initiatives have failed to solve the problem. The announcements in Spending Review 2002, the new Employment Regulations, the JNCHES guidance and the prospect of a revised Model Statute all give us hope that a resolution to the issue of CRS is possible. Nevertheless, we feel that more positive action is needed.

98   Ev 124; The Board members, as of September 2001, were: Dr John Taylor, Director General of Research Councils; Sir Brian Fender - Chief Executive, Higher Education Funding Council for England; Professor John Sizer - Chief Executive, Scottish Higher Education Funding Council; Dr Mike Dexter, Director of The Wellcome Trust

Professor Dame Julia Higgins, Chair of Athena Steering Group; Professor Sir Alan Wilson, Vice­Chancellor of University of Leeds and Chairman of Universities UK's Research Policy Sector Group; Mr David Triesman - General Secretary, AUT; Professor Leela Damodaran - Director HUSAT Research Institute, and representing the Association of Research Centres in the Social Sciences; and Professor Gus Pennington - Chief Executive, Higher Education Staff Development Agency Back

99   Ev 108 Back

100   Memorandum from Dr Joanna Poulton [not printed] Back

101   Memorandum from Dr Diane Wensley [not printed] Back

102   Ev 147 Back

103   Ev 135 Back

104   Ev 67 Back

105   Ev 55 Back

106   Ev 63 Back

107   Ev 118 Back

108   HM Treasury, SET for success: The supply of people with science, technology, engineering and mathematical skills. (Report of Sir Gareth Roberts' Review), April 2002, page 147 Back

109   Q 137 Back

110   Q 122 Back

111   Q 122 Back

112   Q 137 Back

113   Q 156 Back

114   Q 156, Ev 125 Back

115   The National Committee of Inquiry into Higher Education (the Dearing Committee), 1997, para 14.32 Back

116   The National Committee of Inquiry into Higher Education (the Dearing Committee), 1997, recommendation 50 Back

117   Independent Review of Higher Education Pay and Conditions, Report of a Committee Chaired by Sir Michael Bett, 1999, paras 217-218 Back

118   Department of Trade and Industry, Excellence and Opportunity: a science innovation policy for the 21st century, July 2000, Cm 4814, para 34 Back

119   Sixth Report of the Science and Technology Committee, Session 2000-2001, Are We Realising Our Potential? HC 200-I Back

120   HM Treasury, SET for success: The supply of people with science, technology, engineering and mathematical skills. (Report of Sir Gareth Roberts' Review), April 2002 Back

121   Ev 103 Back

122   Q 17 Back

123   Q 109 Back

124   HM Treasury, SET for success: The supply of people with science, technology, engineering and mathematical skills. (Report of Sir Gareth Roberts' Review), April 2002, para 5.15 Back

125   Ev 54 Back

126   Ev 120 Back

127   Ev 65 Back

128   Q 82 Back

129   Ev 77 Back

130   Q 152 Back

131   Q 66 Back

132   Q 100 Back

133   Q 66 Back

134   Ev 71 Back

135   Amicus, Association of University Teachers, British Dental Association, British Medical Association, EIS-ULA; General and Municipal Boilermakers Union, NATFHE, the University and College Lecturers' Union, the Transport and General Workers Union, Unison Back

136   Ev 56 Back

137   Ev 56 Back

138   Ev 152-154 Back

139   Ev 152-153 Back

140   Independent Review of Higher Education Pay and Conditions, Report of a Committee Chaired by Sir Michael Bett, 1999, paras 221-222 Back

141   Ev 55 Back

142   HM Treasury, Opportunity And Security For All: Investing in an enterprising, fairer Britain. New Public Spending Plans 2003 - 2006, July 2002, Cm 5570 Back

143   HM Treasury, Department for Education and Skills, Department of Trade and Industry, Office of Science and technology, Investing in Innovation: A strategy for science, engineering and technology, July 2002 Back

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