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
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
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"
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 thereforethere
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
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