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


Memorandum submitted by the Association of University Teachers


  1.1  The Association of University Teachers is the largest academic union in higher education and represents more than 45,000 staff working in academia, research, teaching, libraries, IT and administration. A significant proportion of the association's membership is employed on fixed-term contracts.

  1.2  The association has long been concerned about the use and proliferation of fixed-term contracts and other forms of casual employment in UK higher education. As such, the association warmly welcomes the opportunity to respond to the inquiry. We hope that, while concentrating on the particular problems in science and engineering, the committee's report will prove to be a highly valuable contribution to the debate about casualisation across the entire higher education system.

  1.3  In 1999 the Bett Report recommended that there was scope for many HE institutions to reduce their use of fixed-term and casual employment.[3] The scale of the problem has not reduced since the publication of that Report and remains a major concern to the association. In 2000-01 42 per cent of all academic staff in higher education were employed on a fixed-term contract. This included 94 per cent of research only staff. Last year, the proportion of research only new entrants to the sector employed on a fixed-term contract stood at a staggering 98 per cent.

  1.4  The use of fixed-term contracts is particularly significant for academic staff in science and technology departments. When the proportion of staff is examined by cost centre, it is clear these departments employ a higher percentage of academic staff on fixed-term contracts than the national average of 42 per cent, as illustrated in the table below. The use of these contracts has also increased since 1994-95.[4]


Clinical medicine
67 per cent
76 per cent
68 per cent
71 per cent
58 per cent
63 per cent
Veterinary science
58 per cent
61 per cent
Anatomy and physiology
60 per cent
61 per cent
55 per cent
61 per cent
53 per cent
60 per cent
Chemical engineering
53 per cent
58 per cent
Mineral, metallurgy and materials engineering
57 per cent
58 per cent
Fixed-term Employees (prevention of less favourable treatment) Regulations

  1.5  In October 2002 the Fixed-term Employees (prevention of less favourable treatment) Regulations will take effect. The main purposes of the Regulations are to ensure that fixed-term employees are treated no less favourably than employees in permanent employment, and to prevent abuse arising from the use of successive periods of fixed-term employment. This will allow for the transposition of the EC Directive 1999/70/EC on Fixed-term Work into UK law. It is widely felt across the higher education sector that this may offer a long overdue solution for large numbers of staff working in the sector who have suffered years of job insecurity and discriminatory employment practice.

  1.6  The association does have a number of concerns about the final draft of the Regulations, particularly where it is felt too much scope is given to employers to justify the continuing use of such bad management practices. The association has recommended that:

    —  The regulations should limit the maximum duration of successive fixed-term contracts to two years;

    —  This limit should not be exceeded by objective grounds unless such grounds relate to exceptional circumstances, which do not include time limited funding;

    —  Continuous service prior to the implementation of the Regulations should count in relation to the renewal of successive fixed-term contracts.[5]


  2.1  The Bett Report highlighted the problems for management that arise from employing staff on a temporary basis. These included difficulties in attracting high calibre staff to posts which are not secure. The Report noted that retention problems are frequently reported. "Towards the end of a fixed-term contract staff necessarily start looking for employment elsewhere: the present job no longer commands their full attention and they often leave before their contract ends. This may put the quality and/or completion of research projects at risk, and will involve the institution in the time and other costs of recruiting replacements. A further problem is that temporary staff are often not fully integrated into the team with which they work and are not given a full share of all necessary tasks." (paragraph 215)

  2.2  For some time, researchers in the field have highlighted managerial disincentives relating to the use of fixed-term contracts. "Short time scales and the need for immediate, visible, returns undermines the key features of professional working; adaptability, autonomy and motivation... The emergence of an underclass of temporary academic staff which lack a relational psychological contract to the employer, undermines and fragments the organising principle of collegiality on which academic professionalism is based."[6]

  2.3  Fixed-term contracts have a negative impact on the research culture of universities. Inevitably, towards the end of a contract, time must be spent looking for the next post—applying for jobs, interviews, getting training that may be useful on a cv. This means that the contract worker is not concentrating full-time on the job. Often, one eye is always on the "jobs column". As a result, contract workers often leave posts early to ensure continuity of employment. This means that the research inevitably suffers—it may be impossible to fill a post for a few months. This can have a knock on effect: if the aims of a research grant are not met, further funding may be harder to obtain.

  2.4  Casual forms of employment often provide significant disbenefits to employers of both a professional and a financial nature. The disadvantages for universities in running their affairs in this way should be clear. It has been demonstrated that the turnover of fixed-term staff is at least four times greater than staff on permanent contracts.[7] There are obvious difficulties with the retention of researchers and there is a continual drain of resources into the recruitment, induction and training of new staff. A reliance on fixed-term staff can also undermine other human resource initiatives such as securing employee commitment, generating strong research team working, and staff development programmes.[8]

  2.5  Casualisation has major implications for equal opportunities. According to the latest HESA figures, women are 32 per cent more likely than men to be employed on a fixed-term contract. This structural discrimination severely hinders the successful implementation of equal opportunity initiatives such as the Athena project.[9] There are similar problems in relation to race and ethnicity. A study in 2000 by the AUT indicated that Asian academics were more likely than staff of other ethnicity to be employed on a fixed-term contract. Bryson provides evidence that women and ethnic minority staff are "ghettoised" and find it difficult to progress onto permanent posts.[10]

Impact of casualisation on the Government's policy for higher education

  2.6  The AUT supports the Government's agenda for higher education including widening access and achieving the target that 50 per cent of the population will enter higher education by the time they reach the age of 30. Higher education has a major role to play in boosting the UK economy and in significantly increasing social inclusion among young people. However, it is recognised that to achieve these goals in a sustainable way will require a well-resourced higher education system and a workforce that is able and motivated to deliver them.

  2.7  The AUT has estimated that in order to meet the participation target, 5000 more academic staff will be required by 2005-06, with a significant amount of additional staff by 2010.[11] This number of high calibre staff will be recruited only if higher education offers attractive careers. If the skills shortages now evident in other areas of the education sector are to be avoided, far more staff will have to be recruited, particularly if the sector fails to retain the high quality staff already employed. Addressing the use and abuse of fixed-term contracts in the sector would be a significant factor in realising this aim.


  3.1  In the period 1994-95 to 2000-01, the proportion of fixed-term contract staff aged 30 and above rose from 53 per cent to 63 per cent. This undermines the perception that contract research staff (CRS) at universities are predominantly young postgraduates or postdoctoral staff undertaking research for a year or two before getting a "proper" job in academia or industry.

  3.2  A recent survey of fixed-term staff in higher education found that 96 per cent of respondents had accepted a fixed-term contract because contract work was the only form that was offered or available. The survey showed that a considerable proportion of employees are dissatisfied with their fixed-term status and attribute it to their employer. "Contract workers do not generally report themselves as opting deliberately for this kind of work but rather regard their situation as one of constraint: the condition of academic work is formally insecure employment, a finding that accords with the casualisation thesis."[12]

  3.3  Bryson is extremely critical of the system of contract research in UK higher education.[13] He identifies a number of issues for researchers and their careers including poor morale and job satisfaction, a feeling of being treated as second-class citizens, the abuse of intellectual property rights and the lack of promotion criteria. The nature of temporary contracts created profound problems. He states, "Job insecurity, uncertainty and the inability to plan were clearly very important but were not the only issues. `Temporariness' led to being seen as transient and inferior by some permanent colleagues. The lack of continuity created wastage and inability to work effectively."[14]

  Certainly, one of the main implications of the use of fixed-term contracts is that CRS have no proper career structure. The Roberts review for example found "significant concern with the lack of any clear career structure associated with contract research".

  An AUT member has identified a number of implications of being on a fixed-term contract:

    "I am reluctant to take on longer term commitments such as directing a research group, editing a journal or organising a research network, all of which require a continued presence in the field of research, which I can never be certain of. I also have difficulty in planning a long-term programme of development in a research area, since the next contract may be in a different field. Being on a fixed-term contract causes all sorts of personal problems. It is impossible to know whether to move home to live near my work, since I may have to move again in a couple of years. There is also the problem of getting a mortgage when there is no job security."

  3.4  The AUT has identified a number of areas in which fixed-term contract staff are treated less favourably than staff on open-ended contracts. These include:

    —  Pay

    —  Access to study leave

    —  Access to appraisal and staff development processes

    —  Entitlement to holidays and sick pay

    —  Incremental progression

    —  Promotion prospects

    —  Redundancy consultation

    —  Redeployment opportunities

    —  Access to maternity rights lost at termination of contract

  3.5  CRS will lose employment rights upon moving between contracts and institutions even if the grants are from the same funding body. Under such circumstances gaining access to maternity pay can be problematic, as the maternity leave period would have to fall after the qualifying period but before the termination of the contract. We are also concerned that the fixed-term contracts that would otherwise have been renewed are allowed to lapse during or following maternity leave.

  3.6  The average salary for full time fixed-term academic staff in 1999-2000 was £23,938 compared to £34,920 for full-time permanent staff. It may be argued that seniority or age differences account for this pay gap. But AUT has presented data that show that in every academic staff grade category except one, fixed-term employees earn less than permanent employees. The data also show that even when we control for age fixed-term staff earn less than their permanent colleagues.[15] Fixed-term staff are often forced to accept pay cuts when moving from one research contract to another, both within and between institutions.

  3.7  Such discrimination on the grounds of contractual status will become illegal once the Fixed-term Employees Regulations come into effect in this autumn, unless the employer can objectively justify the difference in treatment. The AUT recommends that higher education institutions take urgent steps to end the inequality in treatment of terms and conditions between fixed-term and permanent staff.

  3.8  The association has serious concerns about the "class" system operating for academics in universities,[16] with established lecturing staff on the one hand and fixed-term research staff on the other, in particular over problems with discrimination. This is despite the fact that they all have essentially the same role of teaching, research and administration, even though these may be in various ratios. For example, such distinctions lead directly to bad practice, where established members of staff claim to be principal authors of research proposals, where in fact they are merely "fronting" proposals written by members of CRS in order to get round Research Council rules. Denying CRS proper recognition will potentially damage future career prospects, due to the lack of evidence of obtaining proper project funds, project management and so on. Research councils should seek to fund the best research proposals, rather than discriminate first according to the type of contract the applicant is on—there should be no bar to CRS applying for grants as principal investigators, including those that would be used to fund part of their salary.

  3.9  Grant-awarding bodies play a significant role in reflecting and reinforcing discrimination against contract researchers. Although most research councils—including NERC, PPARC, EPSRC and BBSRC—still do not allow CRS to apply for funding in their own name, ESRC and MRC do allow contract researchers to apply as principal investigators. The association believes that the Research Councils UK should seek to harmonise research council eligibility rules on the basis of the ESRC approach.

  3.10  Similarly, research assessment exercise (RAE) rules on counting CRS as 0.1 of a person unnecessarily distorts and devalues their role in the research productivity of an institution and perpetuates further their exclusion from the research culture of a department. The desire for full RAE returnees to achieve international standing and be seen to bring in research money often results in CRS being denied conference expenses, deliberately sidelined from being principal investigators on grant proposals and effectively pushed out of other means of research career development. The low recognition given to CRS in the RAE also encourages malpractice in designating authorship to published works that have been written by research teams. The RAE in its current form offers justification for the exploitation of the contractual vulnerability of CRS. AUT recommends that CRS are treated with parity to their permanent academic colleagues.

4.  Is There Evidence That The Present Situation Causes Good Researchers to Leave?

  4.1  Casualisation has a negative effect on the recruitment and retention of academic and academic-related staff. AUT is aware of numerous examples of excellent researchers deciding "it is not worth the constant stress, insecurity and hassle of moving, job hunting, re-establishing yourself time and time again all in hope of a permanent academic post."

  4.2  This anecdotal evidence is supported by numerous quantitative and qualitative research studies. According to the Roberts Report, "Many universities and PhD students said that the short-term contracts often given to postdoctoral researchers at universities act as a serious disincentive to many graduates pursuing a career in university research."[17]

  4.3  These problems have also been identified in the recent report from the Universities and Colleges Employers Association (UCEA) on recruitment and retention in higher education. In this survey, one in five institutions mentioned that fixed-term contracts were causing recruitment and retention problems in their institutions. There were particular difficulties in recruiting CRS. Forty per cent of universities reported recruitment difficulties in this area.[18]

  4.4  Members of a cohort of Wellcome Trust-funded PhD students who received Prize Studentships between 1988 and 1990 were traced in spring 1999. The survey showed that five to eight years after termination of their trust studentship, less than half the individuals were still employed in the higher education sector. "Many cited the lack of job security inherent in short-term academic contracts and the need to apply for research funding continually. Another reason often cited was the lack of a defined career path or career structure in academia. The third, and almost universal, reason was that academic research was underpaid when compared to the salary opportunities available elsewhere."

  4.5  One member of the cohort who left academic research after five years, succinctly made an important point—"it is a tragedy for these individuals to have to give up something they love doing in order to have a reasonable home life, some sort of reasonable salary compensation and some job security".[19]

  4.6  The Academic Research Careers in Scotland (ARCS) summarised that "contract research staff valued job content over other aspects of their job. Despite this, 70 per cent felt that obtaining employment on a permanent contract was either "very important" or "important".[20] In the event most felt that their jobs delivered on interest but failed to deliver on job security, promotion opportunities and pay. The most important factors leading to an exit from contract research were job insecurity (by a wide margin), poor promotion prospects and low pay. Furthermore, we are increasingly aware that research staff on fixed-term contracts, particularly in science and engineering, are attracted to permanent academic employment outside the UK, meaning their skills and achievements are lost to the UK economy.

  4.7  It is clear that there is a very real danger that we are losing the best and brightest from universities into predominantly non-research fields or abroad. The association believes we are thus wasting a significant intellectual resource.


  5.1  Recommendations on the correct percentage of contract and permanent research staff in universities and research institutions will depend in large part on local circumstances. However, the provisions of the Fixed-term Regulations must be taken into account, particularly regarding the successive use of fixed-term contracts. The association believes that unless there is tightly defined objective justification for placing a post on a fixed-term contract, or renewing a fixed-term contract, all contract research staff should be employed on permanent contracts.

  5.2  In respect of the introduction of the Fixed-term Regulations, the fundamental question for contract research staff is how objective justification will be defined. The association believes it is essential that there are transparent, necessary and objective reasons for placing a post initially and subsequently on a fixed-term contract. The renewal or extension of the fixed term would also have to be justified separately by objective reasons. Objective grounds should relate to specified exceptional circumstances such as covering for staff absence (for example parental leave or long-term sickness) or if the contract is to provide a secondment or career development opportunity. Commitment to more stable employment should also take into account the overall size and resources of the employer. Higher education institutions are large multimillion-pound organisations in receipt of substantial public funds and it is unusual for an institution to experience a year-on-year reduction in income. Their capacity to employ and develop research expertise extends beyond a single project and one short-term contract.

  5.3  It is clear that a fundamental shift in the culture of employment practices is needed. As the ARCS report noted, "When contract research staff left to take careers in private sector manufacturing, hardly any were employed on fixed-term contracts. Since there is no reason to believe that the prospects of the manufacturing sector were more secure than those of the education sector (to the contrary, in fact) the difference may be the result of different employment practices and conventions." The association believes it is these very practices and conventions that must be challenged.


  6.1  Although it was designed to improve the careers of CRS, theConcordat on Research Career Managementhas produced virtually no concrete changes since 1996. This arises from the failure of higher education institutions to abide by their own agreements and the lack of any incentives or penalties (for example, financial) for universities to offer anything more than window dressing towards the Concordat and RCI recommendations. All evidence so far reveals that higher education institutions will not develop any meaningful changes to CRS career paths or working conditions. For example, this is due to the lack of connection between national initiatives, institutional policies and the practice of Principal Investigators in academic departments.

  6.2  Consequently, the second and third interim RCI reports make for depressing reading. They reveal that progress for better management of CRS has been slow or non-existent, with many higher education institutions not even implementing the basic RCI recommendations.[21] For example only 70 per cent of CRS receive the institution's policy statement on research. Only 40 per cent of CRS believe that they are on an equal footing with permanent staff in university and departmental decision-making. A large number of staff have never even heard of the Concordat and the RCI.


  7.1  As a recent report into medical research stated, "the availability of a highly skilled and well-motivated scientific workforce is fundamental to success. This requires recruitment of high-quality personnel; it also requires the retention of the best contract research workers so that their skills and experience are not lost to the scientific research community. This in turn depends on the existence of suitable structures to underpin research work in the UK. It is widely acknowledged that the employment arrangements for an important tier of scientific research workers are anachronistic when compared with modern employment practices in other areas of work."[22]

  7.2  The Roberts Review, drawing on the ARCS survey, concluded that three different career trajectories should be encouraged for contract researchers: the industrial trajectory, the academic trajectory and the research associate trajectory. The association has a number of concerns about this proposal as it relies on, and legitimises, the continuing use of fixed-term contracts for both the industrial and the academic trajectories. The proposal that postdoctoral researchers aiming for an academic career should remain on short-term contracts introduces a pre-probationary period for academic staff. This two-tier system would deter people from an academic career and encourage forced insecurity, not effective mobility, within an established labour market. There is a danger that this will do little more than re-label the existing system and not significantly change the experience of contract research staff in the UK.

  7.3  The association believes that higher education employers should use the introduction of the Fixed-term Employees Regulations as an opportunity to significantly reduce the proportion of research staff on fixed-term contacts. This paper has made recommendations both about how the Regulations could be strengthened, and how objective justification for the use of fixed-term contracts should be defined within workplace agreements.

  7.4  Any decisions on future policy should include an analysis of the apparent failures of initiatives such as the Concordat, the Research Careers Initiative and the Good Practice Agreement signed in 2000 between the employers and all trade unions except AUT. There is now a prospect of new guidance which may be agreed by employers and trade unions. If this guidance is fully endorsed, renewed efforts will be needed to ensure that it effectively promotes adherence to the forthcoming Fixed-term Regulations and has a real impact for research staff.

  7.5  There are examples of good practice in the sector which should be disseminated, such as the recent agreement at Robert Gordon University. The university has recognised the business case for transferring fixed-term staff onto permanent contracts. The Director of Human Resources stated that, "Our research strategies demand that we are able to recruit and retain the best possible staff, and only by moving to more modern employment arrangements will we achieve this goal. There are real benefits to be gained for both the employee and the university by changing both their status and employment conditions."

  7.6  A significant reduction in the use of fixed-term contracts for research staff will require a commitment to change the employment culture within universities and research institutions. Not only is there now a legal requirement for this to happen, the association has repeatedly made the case for the benefits to the sector of the use of permanent contracts. This includes the ability to attract and retain the highest quality staff. It is now time to deliver employment security and better career prospects for contract research workers. These changes will also help to modernise the infrastructure on which the future developments of UK science and technology depend.

21 June 2002

3   Sir M Bett (1999), Independent Review of Higher Education pay and conditions, recommendation 36. Back

4   Statistics are from the Higher Education Statistics Agency individual staff record. HESA only collects data on academic staff employed on at least 25 per cent of a full-time equivalent member of staff. Appendix 1 gives more detailed statistics on the extent of casualisation in the higher education sector Back

5   For the association's full response to the government's final consultation on the draft regulations, please see the AUT web site at Back

6   Bryson C and Barne N, 1997 Professional workers and fixed term contracts: a contradiction in terms, ERU Conference, Cardiff, September 1997. Back

7   Bryson C (2001) The business case for numerical flexibility: A study of temporary employment in UK universities, 17th EGOS Colloquium, Lyon. Back

8   Allan C. (2000) "The hidden costs of using non-standard employment", Personnel Review, 29, 188-206. Back

9   This project promotes the recruitment, retention, progression, and promotion of women in science, engineering and technology within higher education, Back

10   Bryson C (1997) Do fixed term contracts mean a better or worse deal for women? 15th International Labour Process Conference, Edinburgh University, March 25-27. Back

11   AUT (2001) Reaching for 50 per cent participation: sustainable growth in higher education. Back

12   Simms M, Heery E and Farias C (2001) Contingent work in the public sector: a survey of fixed term workers in higher education. Paper presented to ERU Conference September 2001. Back

13   Bryson, 1999 Contract research: the failure to address the real issues. Back

14   ibid. pp. 36-37. Back

15   AUT (2000) Local and national pay and employment in higher education. Back

16   See Harvie. D (2000) "Alienation, Class and Enclosure in UK Universities", Capital & Class 71. Back

17   Review of the Supply of Scientists and Engineers: A summary of responses to the June consultation paper, November 2001, pp. 15. Back

18   UCEA, Recruitment and Retention of Staff in Higher Education, 2002, pp. 27, 23. Back

19   Wellcome Trust (2000) Review of Wellcome Trust PhD Research Training Career Paths of a 1988-1990 Prize Student Cohort. Back

20   Scottish Higher Education Funding Council (2001)-Academic Research Careers in Scotland. Back

21   Research Careers Initiative, 2nd Report, May 2000. For the first three reports, see Back

22   The Academy of Medical Sciences (2002) Non Clinical Scientists on Short Term Contracts in Medical Research. Back

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