Memorandum submitted by Professor Chris
This response is based on two surveys of staff
in higher education which I have undertaken
1. Survey of fixed term contract staff 2001.
2. Survey of part time academic and related
Although the Select Committee is focusing on
science and engineering research, and only a minority of participants
in the research fall into this category, there are many commonalities
in the position of all staff on fixed term contracts.
Does the preponderance of short-term research
contracts matter? Why?
There are robust reasons why fixed term contracts
should be viewed as damaging to the work of universities and research
institutions, as well as to the lives and careers of staff.
The extent of use of fixed term contracts in
higher education and in research in particular is substantially
greater than in industry although the latter works all the time
on short term money in contrast with the stable aggregate flows
of higher education.
My survey evidence suggests that the use of
fixed term contracts is fundamentally incompatible with the type
of work done in higher education. Long years of building up expertise
and skills which are often unique and difficult to replace, and
very long run cycles for bringing cutting edge research to fruition,
are not compatible with contracts which are rarely longer than
three years and more often one year or shortereven as little
as a month.
1. BUSINESS REASONS
Interviews with fixed term staff pointed to
a complex of factors triggered by fixed term contracts:
Many researchers referred to projects
which they had had to abandon as they left for another institution,
another contract. In many cases the research was never disseminated
and never came to fruition in the form of publications.
A renowned expert in his field could
not be a grant holder because there were only three months left
to his contract. No one was available to front a bid inside his
university. He found a suitable academic from another institution
to do this and the £30,000 plus overheads grant proposal
was successful. The grant was lost to his university and awarded
to the other institution. His development unit has been told to
raise its research profile but all staff are on short term contracts.
A principal investigator moved on
to another project as his contract neared expiry. A young research
associate was fortuitously recruited for a damage limitation exercise.
A last minute rescue from research council blacklisting was secured
for a prestigious Oxford college at the eleventh hour.
Two high tech projects were steered
and developed by staff funded on fixed term contracts. To secure
funding a short term basis had to be projected for the projects.
Outcomes had to be artificially pitched at unrealistic and unrealisable
levels within the time scale. One project continued with private
funding but ran into the sand as the principal investigator jumped
ship after a series of one month contracts. The other project
survives on a million pound "wing and a prayer", but
will crash if the expertise of the fixed term manager is lost
because his contract is not renewed.
Almost 20 databases for supporting,
updating essential university records were developed by and under
the wing of a single fixed term contract staff with no under-study.
If she had left, the whole institution would have ground to a
halt in spectacular manner. Systems disabled would include student
records, halls of residences, alumni covenants, remote access
to the system.
There are fundamental incompatibilities between
fixed term contracts and the length of time taken for research
to come to fruition:
(a) Gestation period for research
A main feature of work of academic and related
staff is the long gestation period of the skills knowledge and
understanding they need for their work. This indicates the potential
extent of waste of expertise if these staff are made "redundant"
from their institutions. The following examples emerged from the
interviews with fixed term contract staff:
Research for lecturers
Nine years of postdoctoral experience
15 years if having to keep "all
balls in the air" as lecturer
About 18 months postdoc, alongside
an established researcher
Nine months lead in networking
Research for researchers
"You need more than five or
six years experience postdoc before you can start working independently".
"Seven to 10 years on top of
"Its an ongoing thinga
good relation with a client, know how to meet needs, make life
easier for them, it can depend on you. It's building rapportexpertise
plus the personal touch. The technical side takes five years but
you can't bring someone else in, it would be damaging" (Linked
unit with long run industrial and government clients commissioning
"Up to 20 years of research
to get into clinical practicethe level of experience required
is not understood".
"Technically it is an ongoing
process everything changes in a year. It takes up to a year and
a half to understand a complex operating system and three years
to find out what's going on. In three and a half years you may
be able to hit the ground running. It take four or five years
to develop problem solving skills and how to keep users happy
by prioritising services."
(b) The time span of research work
The time span of research is typically far longer
than permitted by fixed term contracts. Selected examples are
given of the time span of work where this is not compatible with
short fixed term contracts.
Lecturers about their research
"Work started five years ago
and is starting to yield good resultsbuilding on 15 years
in other aspects of my research".
"Five to seven years for a qualitative
project collecting primary data".
"Setting up a research project
takes timetwo or three years at leastbefore there
are measurable outcomes".
"Research needs timeto
twist research interests to the department's, time to settle in
an institution, to build up the research links".
Researchers about their research
"How long is a piece of string?constant
development. Two years before you get to grips with things. Two
or three years before you go outside the department to form alliances.
One year contracts are nowhere enough for big ideas, let alone
"Dissemination of projects takes
"I'm finishing a five year projectits
longer if you include learning the ropes. My contract is for two
years. I wouldn't be able to complete unless my contract was renewed".
"Longitudinal studies are appropriate
over a five and 10 year period and continuity of relationships
There seems little doubt that fixed term contractswhether
by encouraging or forcing people to quit their research postscan
damage the maturing of specialist expertise and disrupt the application
of it to secure the most productive research outcomes and the
greatest benefit from findings.
2. FIXED TERM
When staff have been employed on
fixed term contracts for 10, 20 or even more years, as is infrequently
the case, the argument that the work is temporary is implausible.
The use of "objective reasons"
especially "demand or project limited funding" should
not be used as a rationale for the use of fixed term contracts
when employment has lasted for decades. Research funding is relatively
stable in aggregate.
Casualisation has burgeoned unnecessarily
alongside the substantial expansion of teaching and research in
which permanent posts could have been accommodated and the need
to retain and expand the essential resource of expertise and skills.
3. FIXED TERM
It is relatively easy for employers to hire
and fire by using short fixed term contracts and to pass off ill-considered
judgements at the expense of the people employed on them. Interviewees
for the 2001 survey suggested that the use of fixed term contracts
may encourage an employer to behave in the following ways:
To use hiring and firing as a cover
for poor management, and in particular to avoid long run planning
and considering the most effective utilisation of valuable expertise.
To increase power and status differentials.
To instil fear and hence compliance
in employees who will not "put their heads above the parapet".
To reduce the scope for employees
to negotiate flexible work/ lifestyle arrangements.
To exploit fixed term contract staff
through low pay.
To constrain the acquisition of appropriate
experience and expertise for promotion.
To undermine solidarity by creating
a situation in which people may compete for their own and colleagues
To divides staff into groups with
separate or conflicting interests.
To undermine trade union membership
To intimidate staff who feel forced
to work extensive extra hours unpaid.
To intimidate female employees to
postpone starting families.
To encourage employees to work when
too ill to do so and ignore medical recommendations.
To encourage individuals to feel
they are disposable and so go "quietly".
This list suggests that the use of fixed term
contracts creates an imbalance of power which will be exploited
by some to personal advantage and to find short term positions
when faced with financial stringency. It permits poor management
which is not in the long run interests of individual staff, institutions
What are the implications for researchers and
My research supports the view that short term
contracts are the root cause of many presenting features which
are widely considered damaging or unacceptable. The single most
striking finding was the near universal repulsionthat is
not too strong a wordfor job insecurity and the effect
on people's lives and work.
It is often argued that the "flexibility"
is welcome to employees. The opinion of fixed term staff surveyed
isby contrastthat individuals seeking change and
variety should be able to choose to leave rather than find this
forced upon them by dismissal.
The 1996 survey of part time staff found satisfaction
with work, very mild dissatisfaction with pay and career prospects,
but overwhelmingly strong dissatisfaction with job insecurity.
This is consistent with the responses in the 2001 survey: no-one
would choose a fixed term in preference to a permanent contract.
The acute job security, suggested a contract researcher, "is
hardly the way to treat the `cream of academia'".
Job insecurity is corrosive.
One person in a post recently made permanent
said that now: "The clear message from the employer (on being
made permanent) is `I believe in you as an individual'. I'm comfortable
now. I'm able to serve the university's needs. On fixed term contracts
it is `I am not sure I want to keep you. I may want to give you
a battering'. Why should I want to be loyal to an organisation
which does that to me?"
People do not see themselves or their
work as valued. The message is that they are disposable.
Fixed term contracts mean that people
cannot plan ahead in either their work or their personal lives,
according to the survey responses.
Casualised staff see their jobs as
threatened by corruption. In 30 interviews (2001 survey) there
were four allegations of work being taken from fixed term staff
on contract expiry and subsequently given to the wives of senior
Personal lives are distorted and damaged.
One respondent stressed the fundamental impact
of job insecurity on his life:
"I hate to think what is to happenmy
life is complicated with interweaving strandspull this
one out and it all falls down".
Examples of the personal impact of fixed term
traumaticis inflicted on individuals and their families.
This is the outstanding reason for preferring a permanent contract.
Independent incomes and collateral securitysuch as a partner
with a secure jobmoderated the degree of anxiety but the
financial precariousness associated with the contract was stressed
Most react by living in inferior,
often rented housing in unfavourable locations, because there
is lower financial risk. Considerable disparity of wealth between
staff on fixed term and permanent contracts could accrue from
relative property values over time.
Many staff associate job insecurityand
in particular the run up to contract renewal or expiry and very
short term contractsnot just with stress but a range of
physical illness in themselves and their spouses. These include
dangerously raised blood pressure; serious illness; depression
and partial paralysis.
Fixed term contracts were said by
almost all women to lead to postponed motherhood, barring accidents.
Such contracts discourage the majority of women from starting
a family as they may feel the risk of non-renewal is too high,
or regard a severe career setback to be an inevitable consequence.
Fixed term contracts were said to
induce people to go into work when "feeling really rough"
and to ignore medical advice not to do so. An hourly paid lecturer
was reported to have hobbled into work with a broken ankle despite
a hospital recommendation to rest for a month. People dread long
term illness and expect this to lead to a total loss of income.
In the words of one otherwise upbeat manager,
himself employed on a fixed term contract, "fixed term contracts
are an appalling way to treat people".
Fixed term contracts and inferior pay
Pay cuts of up to £9,000 were
reported as a result of changing jobs because of contract termination.
There were no reports of pay cuts occurring if employment was
sustained in the same institution.
Appointments on a lower scale or
point and even a return to the bottom of the pay scale were experienced
when contract researchers moved to a different institution and
project because of the termination of the previous contract. Some
individuals argued the case and gained partial reinstatement,
but there appears to be a substantial problem. Some females considered
themselves less able than males to contest such situations.
There was no suggestion that such
experiences were shared by staff on permanent contracts. Individuals
compared themselves with others who had qualified at the same
time with comparable experience and without exception the pay
of fixed term contract staff was lower or, at best, the same.
Differences once in place tended to be perpetuated.
Not a single instance was reported
in the survey of fixed term staff who had secured pay advantage
in relation to those on a permanent contract.
Research staff and inferior promotion prospects
Lost increments and less promotion
allegedly occur because funding councilsparticularly in
science and engineeringdo not permit contract research
staffhowever senior and experiencedto be grant holders.
This may result from an explicit rule, or because the time for
the contract to run is shorter than the duration of the research.
Fixed term status has been associated
with lack of access to required experiencesuch as of single
authored publications. Essential experience for promotion eg of
supervising PhDs was not possible because contracts were due to
expire in less than three years.
Contract research staff provide essential
expertise, writing grant applications, undertaking primary research
and data analysis, writing reports and publications. But their
contribution and authorship of contract research staff is often
unacknowledged while the careers of staff on permanent contracts
Fixed term contracts lead to fragmented
and partial career profiles. Moving to new projects at different
institutions results in diverse research experience and a lack
of specialised focus and career profile. General skills which
may "enhance employability" in other sectors, are not
associated with poor career prospects for the staff surveyed.
On the other hand much work in science
and engineering is highly specialised and for one interviewee
this fitted only two UK university departments. This is a constraint
to promotion and contrasts with the position of doctors and other
service sector professionals who expect to progress to jobs in
Researchers relying on grant funding
were afraid that promotion would price them out and some held
back from it.
Research staff are often unrepresented
on decision making committees unlike so called "established"
permanent staff. The lack of an appropriate "track record"
may impede promotion prospects.
There is no coherent provision for
research staff to be promoted to senior or professorial level.
The survey evidence suggests that
transfer to a permanent post tends to be regarded as a promotion
but unlike promotions of permanent staff, the evidence suggests
that fixed term staff are forced to apply for their own posts
and these are externally advertised. The evidence from my survey
suggests that staff on fixed term contracts may not be reappointed
to their own jobs.
Where impediments to promotion were overcome,
parity of pay and promotion were associated by interviewees with
the luck of having the support of a personal "champion"
rather than merit.
Other inferior treatment
The evidence from my surveys suggests that all
staff on fixed term contracts suffer in various other ways from
less favourable treatment. Examples include:
Fixed term contract staff are frequently
excluded from representation on the decision making bodies of
their institutions, for example from being "members of faculty"
or sitting on school or other main boards.
They may be excluded participating
in meetings relating to their work and to staffing at departmental
They tend to be excluded from social
events and presentations and this may also apply to exclusion
from canteens, toilets and in one case a swimming pool.
The office facilities of hourly paid
staff, and sometimes of research staff, tend to be cramped with
several staff in a single office.
Hourly paid staff in particular feel
obliged to work unsociable hours, and during school holidays.
Fixed term contract staff have to
renew library, campus, and computer cards as frequently as a contract
is renewed (sometimes every month).
Fixed term contract staff do not
have access to sabbaticals, even though the pursuit of their own
specialist research may be more restricted by their paid work
than is the case for staff on permanent contracts.
for relocationare denied to fixed term contract staffeven
though they are likely to need them more
There is a common underlying suggestion that
fixed term contracts equate with second class status. As one researcher
put it, he is regarded as "permanently temporary".
Is there evidence that the present situation causes
good researchers to leave?
It is generally accepted that research staff
will begin looking for alternative work about six months or more
before a contract ends. If offered a job which attracts them they
will "jump ship" before renewal of the current contract
is considered. This is hardly surprising, given that the survey
reveals the widespread practice of renewing contracts around or
after the date of expiry, often leaving fixed term staff working
without contracts and occasionally pay.
What would be the right balance between contract
and permanent research staff in universities and research institutions?
The advantages of employing all staff on permanent
contracts appear to make this a win-win move. Objective justification
for the use of fixed term contracts should be minimal in scopeeg
to cover for maternity or sickness leave. The European presumption
of a permanent contract as the norm should be endorsed. This would
enable the benefits from long term involvement with ongoing research
to be realised.
Fixed term contracts are damaging to individuals
and to the long run future of institutions. Permanent contracts
should be the norm and this will shape improved management and
utilisation of staff.
Has the concordat and the research careers initiative
made any difference?
Judging by the results of the surveys little
has been achieved despite the token acknowledgement of the importance
of contract research staff.
Attempting to better conditions of staff without
tackling the root cause of fixed term contracts is swimming against
the tide. Insecurity creates conditions that are ripe for exploitation
and the under funding of universities has provided incentives
for short sighted cost paring regardless of the longer run consequences.
Many institutions agree that some bridging funds for contract
research staff should be in place, but regard this as unaffordable
if finances are tight. Valuable staff are then lost.
How should policy move forward?
Staff should be employed on permanent contracts
other than for specific exceptions. Other improvements are desirable
but will be difficult to deliver without tackling the root cause
which is fixed term contracts.
24 June 2002