Select Committee on Science and Technology Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 100-110)



Dr Turner

  100. It is fair to say that academics politics can be quite nasty. Would you think it fair to say there may be senior academics out there who find it very convenient to have a lot of short-term contract staff because it makes it much easier for them to manipulate things to their satisfaction?
  (Ms Hunt) I think it is possible to paint that picture. What I think it is also very important to realise is that there are very good academics out there who are struggling very hard with systems which are not enabling them to manage their staff well. I think it is important to say that because those people are also victims within this. They are managing research teams, they are trying to generate good quality academic research and development so that they are attracting students into the system and they have not got any ability to encourage the very people that they need to take up academic careers so that can happen. There are instances obviously—you have heard of one earlier by one of the witnesses—where there are personal conflicts and there are professional conflicts which come into play. That is not something which within this current system can be managed and can be adequately monitored so it will always be hearsay and it will always be very, very individualistic. I think it is something that certainly no university at this moment could hand on heart say they have a way of addressing that issue.
  (Mr Pike) Could I add that we should note, also, that it is not just senior academics who are responsible for the continuance of fixed-term contracts, one has to say that successive governments are responsible also and to blame for the exploitation that many contract researchers will tell you about. Universities are asking contract research staff and all fixed term employees to shoulder the risk of uncertain funding themselves. We believe that universities should shoulder more of that risk on their own and not ask their employees to endure years and years of uncertainty on fixed term contracts. Government policy is such that the European Directive on Fixed Term Work is now being reluctantly transposed, it is being transposed in October, it should have been transposed this July. The protection afforded to employees under the new regulations is far less than you will find in other EU states. We believe that the Government is transposing this directive according to the needs of employers, not employees. We would like to see greater protection which is why we have been negotiating with the higher education employers on more specific objective criteria which will define when and how a fixed-term contract can be used. In the area of employment rights we do believe that if Government had been more careful and more watchful over the preponderance of fixed-term contracts many of these exploitative situations could have been dealt with years ago.

Mr Heath

  101. Is there a risk that you are negotiating your members out of jobs altogether?
  (Mr Pike) We do not believe so. The new Employment Bill, which is yet to receive Royal Assent, will withdraw or do away with redundancy payment waivers, so in circumstances whereby a fixed term contract expires universities and employers in general will have to pay redundancy payments, so in that sort of circumstance it will make very little difference whether one is a fixed term employee or a permanent employee. If a redundancy situation arises, be you fixed term or permanent, there will be a cost for both sets of employees and so we do not believe that this will have a negative impact on job opportunities.

Dr Turner

  102. It would seem also fair to say that using excessive reliance on short-term contract workers is not the most efficient way of conducting long-term research either in terms of the quality of that research or cost effectiveness in getting the best results possible out of the money that is currently available for research. Do you have any suggestion as to how much increase in funding would be needed to establish a situation where the reliance on short-term contracts could be drastically reduced so that most long-term researchers were working on open-ended contracts and do you think that British science would benefit from this?
  (Ms Hunt) The quick answer is—


  103. Just make sure it is the same figure.
  (Ms Hunt) No, no. It is all written down and it is submitted to the Chancellor in our submission on the spending review.

Mr Heath

  104. That is all right then.
  (Ms Hunt) I am sure he is going to take every word on board.

Dr Turner

  105. I would not share that view.
  (Ms Hunt) I am going to be honest with you here: I have not got a figure in my head, and the reason I have not is that I think it is important to realise that it is not just the figure; it is about how it is cascaded down. It is about how that money is shared, how that money is allocated and not just according to an institution. It is about having the overall umbrella that that institution is going to use for staff, for fixed term contract staff, for career development, for training, for support on a university wide level. Tom referred to the agreement that we have been negotiating with the employer side and we are very proud of one area of that, which is that we are saying that for the first time universities will acknowledge that they are in fact an entity, not a department, not a corridor, not a small group, when it looks at funding, and that they will acknowledge that where they are looking at how you protect and develop someone's career they will have a responsibility to look at the overall funding within a whole university before they say there is no money to continue. That of itself will go a very long way to making it possible for individual researchers, individual contract staff, to get more security without themselves having to put the begging bowl out in effect.
  (Mr Williams) Let us take some instances from the witnesses we have seen who have been on fixed-term contracts for 20 years or so. How much would it have cost to put them on open-ended contracts on the first day? Nothing? How much would you have saved because of the time they spent in worrying about applying for new jobs and all of the insecurity that they have suffered?
  (Mr Wilson) That is the point I would make too, which is that to some extent you are right: there is an issue of funding and, like AUT, we have put in a submission for substantially increased funding for research, but the improvement in the lives of contract researchers is not really about funding essentially; it is about better management. It is pretty obvious if you look at the different experience of the pre- and post-1992s and the way in which they handle research and manage it and fund it and plan it, that it is perfectly possible to organise good quality, long-term research which is getting five stars now in a completely different way. The post-1992s are not doing that because they are better funded; far from it. If anything it is the reverse. They are doing it because they have a different kind of managerial culture, I think, partly, a different sort of history and they are more used to piling things in the longer term and appointing staff and, if necessary, re-applying and re-training if that particular funding stream comes to a halt. That is the kind of model that we are more than happy to sit down and negotiate. Indeed, we have done nationally. That is the kind of approach we want to see and it is not really about funding.

Mr McWalter

  106. I know you represent senior staff as well as more junior staff, including these people who are affected. Is it not the case that the current system is very helpful to some senior staff? They get someone in on a post-doc, they milk them for three years or whatever, kick them out, and then the senior member of staff can portray that research that has been done as his or her own? There is real scope for people to build up their own reputation and so on through this system whereas if the person is still around they have some kind of ownership of it.
  (Ms Hunt) Can I go back to what I said to you about the ability to apply for your own grant? That is why it is very important. Control the income streams in terms of the research that you are interested in and you have much more of a power relationship there of itself and that is something that certainly this Committee could do, to ask the funding bodies and the research councils to do something about this, to address the fact that at the moment they are actively undermining a significant proportion of the academic community in this country to an extent that it is going to seriously impact on the economic security of this country in the next five or ten years. That is the reality.
  (Mr Wilson) I am not sure that that kind of academic model really works any longer because most research these days is done by a team which involves an awful lot of people working closely together. The principal investigators themselves are very often on fixed-term contracts, their superiors if you like are equally vulnerable and insecure, so it may be that there is a perception that that kind of quick turnover helps people to get their name on the published cover of a book but it is not really like that any more.

  107. I am an ex-academic; I have seen it.
  (Mr Wilson) I am not saying it does not happen, nor that it did not use to happen perhaps rather more than it does now, but I do not think it is quite such a major factor is the point I am making.

  Chairman: We have also got a short-term contract here, of course.

Mr Heath

  108. We are all very conscious of that.
  (Ms Hunt) You get redundancy terms though.

  Chairman: Excellent. We have got a very good trade union.

Mr Heath

  109. Except we are unemployable. We cannot finish, not least because we have Sir Gareth afterwards. Can I ask you about the Roberts Review on proposals on research career development?
  (Mr Pike) From our point of view we welcome the Roberts Review and it has highlighted several areas on which we would agree with Gareth Roberts. However, we do not think that the Roberts Review has got it quite right when it argues for extra payment for researchers in set subjects, like science, engineering technology. What the Roberts Review has highlighted is that a number of different subject areas in higher education are experiencing some pretty acute pressures in terms of recruitment and retention, but within the Roberts Review we do not see any evidence that those pressures are worse in set subject areas. Indeed, implicit within the Roberts Review is an admission that other subject areas such as health and education are subject to the same recruitment and retention pressures but they are simply outside the scope of the Roberts Review so they are not commented on. We would argue that the Roberts Review has highlighted the need to increase funding in general and that if you increase funding and pay for researchers in set subjects only what you will do is enable recruiters in set subject areas to increase their share of the limited pool of talent. What we would prefer to see is a general uplift in funding and pay levels throughout the sector to encourage more people into higher education in terms of working in a research and academic capacity. We do not particularly think that the Roberts Review has established a case for differential subject payments to staff in set subject areas. We would also point out that the Government has other priority areas in terms of health and education, and if you provide additional incentives for researchers in set subjects other key policy areas and initiatives could well be affected. We do welcome the Roberts Review's findings that academic pay levels in general are too low; we would endorse that.
  (Mr Williams) When I started reading the Roberts Review I was very encouraged by the identification of the problem. I think that is really significant because I am not sure if that has actually got through in certain sectors, so it identified the problem but then I think it did start to go off track a bit because I think its underlying model is trying to keep a separate identity for what CRS (contract research staff) do and what academic staff do, as it says. I think the difference, when you look at what really goes on in research teams, is minimal, so therefore, continuing on what was said by the witnesses, these parallel tracks that we get which then rely on fixed-term contracts as the basis for two of them I do not think are any help because they are cutting across this research team which is trying to deliver long-term research, albeit maybe by a series of fixed-term grants given the current dual support system.

  110. So you do not buy trajectories at all?
  (Mr Williams) I do not buy trajectories at all, no.

  Chairman: Many thanks to you for that. That has been very helpful. Please do write in if there is something that you want to get over and did not have the chance.

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