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


Memorandum submitted by Professor Chris Kynch

  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 staff 1996

  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 shorter—even as little as a month.


  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 a PhD".

    —  "Its an ongoing thing—a good relation with a client, know how to meet needs, make life easier for them, it can depend on you. It's building rapport—expertise 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 work).

    —  "Up to 20 years of research to get into clinical practice—the level of experience required is not understood".

IT support

    —  "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 results—building 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 time—two or three years at least—before there are measurable outcomes".

    —  "Research needs time—to 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 collaborative work".

    —  "Dissemination of projects takes four years".

    —  "I'm finishing a five year project—its 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 are important"

  There seems little doubt that fixed term contracts—whether by encouraging or forcing people to quit their research posts—can 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.


    —  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.


  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 conceal corruption.

    —  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 jobs.

    —  To divides staff into groups with separate or conflicting interests.

    —  To undermine trade union membership and strength.

    —  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 or research.

What are the implications for researchers and their careers?

  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 repulsion—that is not too strong a word—for 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 is—by contrast—that 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 staff.

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 happen—my life is complicated with interweaving strands—pull this one out and it all falls down".

Examples of the personal impact of fixed term contracts

    —  Financial insecurity—often traumatic—is inflicted on individuals and their families. This is the outstanding reason for preferring a permanent contract. Independent incomes and collateral security—such as a partner with a secure job—moderated the degree of anxiety but the financial precariousness associated with the contract was stressed by all.

    —  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 insecurity—and in particular the run up to contract renewal or expiry and very short term contracts—not 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 councils—particularly in science and engineering—do not permit contract research staff—however senior and experienced—to 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 experience—such 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 are enhanced.

    —  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 nearby locations.

    —  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 level.

    —  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.

    —  Peripheral expenses—notably for relocation—are denied to fixed term contract staff—even 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 scope—eg 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

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