Select Committee on Science and Technology Appendices to the Minutes of Evidence


Memorandum submitted by Mr David Briggs, Director of Human Resources, Robert Gordon University, Aberdeen

  I am writing, as the Director of Human Resources of this Institution, to provide evidence to the Inquiry. Whilst I do so as a personal contribution, which has been invited, I believe that the views expressed represent the views of this University also.

  The evidence is submitted against the background of the University taking a strategic position on the future employment of contract research staff (CRS), which will, from 1st August 2002, have the effect of:

    —  employing most CRS as "Academic Research Staff", ending the label of CRS which itself defines the false limitations of their employability within the wider academic and economic environments;

    —  employing most Academic Research Staff on normal "open-ended" contracts, improving their sense of value;

    —  modernising their employment terms, in a similar way to the modernisation agenda which we have generally, and successfully, pursued for academic staff also;

    —  arranging for staff development provision and career support counselling;

    —  applying "best practice" in the process of severance, where this becomes a possibility.

  However, it would be wrong to believe this is a "one solution fits all" situation.

  We are a relatively small employer of CRS and do not have the burden of the "model statute", so common in the larger research intensive Universities. It is this freedom from the inhibitions of restrictive employment practice, which enables us to take modest risks within our strategic imperatives.

  It should also be noted that the main driver for change, in this instance, was our developing strategy for research. In particular, the need to give ourselves market advantage in the recruitment and retention of research staff, to counterbalance our locational disadvantage.

  To answer the specific matters noted by the Committee for comment:

  1.  The preponderance of short-term research contracts does matter for a number of reasons:

    —  Recruitment and retention of high-quality staff within the HE sector, in competition with other sectors, particularly where research is likely to be ongoing. The predominant use of fixed-term employment is at complete odds with the notion that HE is the "engine-room" of the UK economy, a point repeatedly made by Ministers and endorsed by industry and commerce.

    —  The value to HE of the continuity of knowledge and experience within both the research and teaching communities.

    —  Morale and motivation of staff, who are faced with engaging in job search as a routine feature of their employment, almost from the first day.

    —  Repeated short-term contracts are simply not an appropriate way to employ key workers in a modern, knowledge based, education economy.

  2.  For many researchers, their careers become unpredictable and patchwork. Top "expert" researchers will always find their place within HE, according to their subject speciality and the location of the appropriate research community. Others will always have more difficulty, being dependent of the vagaries, inefficiencies and unpredictability of the funding regimes. A particular knock-on effect is the reluctance of researchers to avail themselves of the employee development opportunities which many other employees take advantage of. Many of these opportunities offer transferable skills in the marketplace.

  In this sense, it is the funding regimes which are at the core of the problem, not just the fixed-term nature of funding but also the management culture that has, consequentially, become embedded within Institutions. This has also been reinforced by the statutory employment framework, which has enabled employers to use fixed-term contracts as a method of "managing out" employment risks.

  3.  The evidence, that this encourages good researchers to leave, is implicit rather than explicit. However, that does not invalidate such evidence. It goes without saying that, those who face potential redundancy in a year or two, will seek a more secure employment environment in which to deploy their valued knowledge and skills. To that extent, their employability in the external environment will be the determining factor. It goes without saying, that this will vary over time, with geography, speciality area and the state of the economy.

  4.  The balance of contract and permanent research staff is, in our view, not one that can be properly answered. It will vary Institution to Institution. Under the present funding regime, this is the wrong question to ask therefore—there is no single correct answer. Institutions themselves will have to decide the level of risk each is prepared to take, having regard to the funding sources which predominate, the balance of each, judgements about repeat funding that is likely, their own available Institutional research funds, non-research income etc.

  5.  The Concordat and RCI have made an impact in raising awareness, particularly as regards issues to do with staff development, transferable skills, management requirements etc. However they have, inevitably, been unable to deal with the underlying problems created by the influence of the historic statutory employment environment, the effect of the funding regimes and also of the procedural obstacles to redundancy in the pre-1992 HE sector. Whilst these latter two influences remain, it is difficult to see how progress can be made.

  In the present environment, there can be no "one size fits all" solution. Few Institutions of any size will pursue the RGU solution, where the degree of "risk" is relative to size and, therefore, relatively low and manageable, unless there is change.

  6.  The way forward is not straightforward. It should certainly not be driven by the fixed-term contract legislation which will deem a contract to be permanent after four years, continuous service. The "four year" element may well be reduced in the years ahead and it would be unwise to make policy on that basis. Nor should fixed-term contracts be "outlawed", as there will be circumstances where they will be valid. The possibility of expiry of funding being accepted in the employment tribunals, as being a "genuine business reason", has still not been tested.

  7.  The way ahead is dependent on removing two obstacles to "acceptable risk" and also on promoting modern management, practice knowledge and skills among the research management community. The two obstacles are:

    —  Changing the research funding regimes, so far as is possible, to either a longer-term commitment, a "rolling basis" or to core/non-core funding. Different regimes might apply to different types of research. However, the common feature would be that employers would have sufficient confidence to either create a "core/non-core workforce" of researchers or to employ all such employees on open-ended contracts, with the normal employment risks that go with that.

    —  This would be significantly enhanced if those bidding for research funds were able to make provision in their bids for the funding of retraining and/or redundancy, should the employment end as a consequence of the research funding not being renewed and/or there being no suitable alternative employment. At present, this is generally not possible and Institutions carry all the risk, employment and financial, in this respect.

    —  The second obstacle, in the pre-1992 sector, is the so-called "model statute", which places Institutions at considerable disadvantage should they have to make redundancies within their academic/research staff, to the extent that it becomes impossible to proceed, with any reasonable speed. Progress has been made on this, by the employer's association (UCEA), and there is the prospect of Institutions being able to modify their internal procedures as a result. This requires Privy Council approval and will therefore take some time. This change is absolutely vital, as the effect of the "model statute" is to override and be in conflict with the statutory changes in the fixed-term contract employment environment.

    —  Lastly, research managers are, generally, unaware of modern management practice, the employment environment governing contract researchers and the changes ahead. Nor are they aware of the modernisation agenda, preferring to refer to "when I was a CRS" as a legitimisation of all that is good and bad. A major education and development programme will be required to shift "old" culture thinking in some Institutions and targeted funds to support this would be essential in order to make a sustainable impact in the long term.

24 June 2002

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