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


Memorandum submitted by Manchester Association of University Teachers


Does the preponderance of short-term research contracts really matter? Why?

  From our viewpoints as current and former short-term contract researchers, the response to this question is clearly that it does matter. However in the course of discussions with colleagues it has emerged that the motives for maintaining the status quo might be quite different from what is often stated. In other words, there are a number of reasons usually offered as to why the status quo is acceptable and we wish to offer evidence to help clarify the motives behind these positions.

  We have provided a detailed response to this question in tabular format in Appendix A.1. This identifies a number of stated issues/reasons that were offered to us in the course of our interview/discussions with academic and senior academic colleagues at this university. Alongside these issues we have stated the corresponding refutation. Although a majority of colleagues to whom we spoke confessed to being troubled by the existence of short term contracts, a few were concerned enough to actually wish for change. However, in response to your question, the answer could be "it doesn't really matter enough".

  These issues combine to make the maintenance of the status quo a desirable aim for some (ie that the current preponderance of short-term contracts for researchers doesn't really matter, or it does matter but nothing should be done about it).

  In essence, it seems possible that many of our colleagues fear the consequences of researchers being employed on permanent contracts because:

    (a)  senior academics have enough problems managing existing permanent staff, and colleagues do not want to see this problem magnified;

    (b)  the use of short-term employment contracts makes people management relatively easy if there is a "problem", it can only last until contract expiry.

    (c)  there is a perception that there will always be individuals available from outside the institution who have better skills more suited to a research project than the incumbent research staff.

  There is little consideration of accountability, transparency, freedom of academic expression, or judgement of performance. By a curious myopia, these rights that academics have fought for are deemed irrelevant for researchers.

What are the implications for researchers and their careers?

  We are sure sufficient evidence will be available from other existing sources. However we briefly explore the many issues in Appendix A.2.

Is there evidence that the present situation causes good researchers to leave?

  In some sense, we consider this to be perhaps a baffling question! The stated aim of, say, the Research Careers Initiative (RCI) is to dispose of CRS after one or at most two contracts, and to encourage a flow into industry—good staff will therefore inevitably leave.

  The meaning of "good" will probably be subjective, perhaps to be interpreted by individual grant-holders who may overlook a "good researcher" for a variety of reasons. In any case there are already recruitment difficulties, especially in areas such as Computer Science and Biological Sciences. An interesting question is whether fixed-term contracts have the effect of reducing the applicant pool—a related question would be: does the present situation cause good researchers not to apply in the first place?

What would be the right balance between contract and permanent research staff in universities and research institutions?

  We believe that universities should operate on a principle of permanency. Any acceptance of there being a percentage of staff on fixed-term contracts will mean that universities continue with existing policies based on significant casualisation. There would not be any impetus to change.

  Virtually all staff should be on open-ended contracts. The only role for fixed-term contracts might be where a need is identified for a short, truly finite post, but where it is not possible to cover via other institution staff. Even then, in a reasonably managed unit the level of cover needed would be factored into the staffing level requirement, to ensure there would normally be sufficient capacity within existing staff; for example, there may be an assumption that 10 per cent of staff would legitimately be excused from some of their duties at any one time (eg on sabbatical, training, long-term sick leave, maternity leave) and so appropriate staffing levels would be set.

Has the Concordat and the Research Careers Initiative made any difference?

  Our opinion is no. They are based on a principle of casualisation and are addressing problems resulting from fixed-term contracts—these problems would disappear when open-ended contracts are introduced for the vast majority of staff.

  At Manchester, the Concordat was implemented via a "Code of Practice" agreed with MAUT. Even now, there are CRS and PIs who never received this. Maternity pay remains a significant problem, in practice.

  We will leave others to comment in more detail.

How should policy move forward?

  In some sense, we do not believe there is a great deal for the Government to do at the policy level, especially once the fixed-term regulations are introduced (see below). However, it is imperative that the Government changes the fixed-term contract culture currently operating within universities.

  The challenge is to ensure that colleagues do pro-actively review their use of fixed-term contracts, in order to find ways to reduce their use significantly.

  One obvious way to achieve this would be via the use of financial incentives, perhaps with research councils offering increased overheads if staff are employed on open-ended contracts. A second alternative would be to offer a disincentive by strengthening the fixed term regulations (see below). A third method would be to demonstrate to colleagues the benefits of open-ended contracts, for example by commissioning high quality research, or by setting up pilot schemes.

  Once the financial and academic benefits of adopting the principle of permanency are recognised, we believe that change will naturally follow.

  It is indeed remarkable that, as far as we know, no serious "cost benefit analysis" has been conducted regarding the reliance on fixed-term contracts.

  Schemes such as Roberts and the RCI seem to us to be "tinkering at the edges", introducing proposals for peripheral changes which stand little chance of being implemented, and would have little effect even if they were—nothing really significant will change until the "fixed-term" mentality is addressed and an employment model based on permanency is introduced.

  Existing disincentives must be removed, via specific minor changes:

    —  Research Council funding rules should be reviewed to ensure that, for example, there is no actual or perceived restriction on the use of funds to pay salaries of staff on open-ended contracts;

    —  we fear that, as it currently stands, the "objective reason" clause in the Fixed-Term Regulations may result in a loophole, enabling the continued employment of CRS on a succession of fixed-term contracts across the HE sector, by claiming that "fixed term funding" is an objective reason. This should be addressed, so that repeated use of fixed-term contracts is indeed for truly exceptional reasons only.

  After almost two years of discussion on our Casualisation Working Party, we have come to the rather straight forward conclusion that it is unlikely that there will be an agreement with the University upon top-down policies which will lead to a significant reduction in casualisation. There is even less likelihood of these being implemented. Instead we believe there needs to be an active fine-grained programme in order to initiate evolutionary change. This would naturally lead to the identification of any institutional constraints (for example, caused by an inappropriate financial model) which can then be addressed. There will not be change if no-one wants to change, and this will only happen if the benefits of doing so are apparent.

  A programme of "re-education" via facilitated discussion would enable the apparent benefits of casualisation to be exposed as myths. We propose that units within universities should be required to conduct such analysis, with the support of guidelines on methodology. This grass-roots process has already started independently at Manchester, at the initiative of enlightened managers who have carefully identified the needs of their unit, considered the risks and other factors, and then simply requested that posts are made open-ended.

  As a consequence of improving the conditions of academic research employment, we believe that the recruitment and retention of top-quality staff within Higher Education would become far easier.


  (1)  Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) Review of Research:—37all.htm.

  (2)  Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA) annex to the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) Review of Research:

  (3)  Science and Innovation White Paper (2000), Excellence and Opportunity:

  (4)  Scottish Higher Education Funding Council: Academic Research Careers in Scotland 2001.

  (5)  Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA) Individualised Staff Records, 1999-2000.


A.1  Does the preponderance of short-term research contracts really matter? Why?

  38  The response to this question depends on the viewpoint of the individual to whom the question is addressed. The statements in the left hand column reflect what was stated to us in the course of interviewing a number of members of research, academic and academic management community at Manchester University. For each statement there is a corresponding refutation from our perspective, which incorporates the views of those enlightened managers we interviewed who have sought to introduce open-ended contracts.

"No, it doesn't really matter" "Yes, it does matter"
t.1: It works Most research activity undertaken on behalf of the taxpayer in government-funded institutions is carried out by individuals who cannot make any long-term commitment either to the institution or to the research activity. We question whether this is legal (bearing in mind the new fixed-term employment regulations) and in the best interests of the taxpayer. However, the PI only sees the immediate circumstances and not the bigger picture.
t.2: It is not an issueSurveys, such as ARCS[4], indicate that the nature of employment contracts was the single biggest cause for concern among research staff employed on short-term contracts. It results in a two-class workforce with a small core and large periphery in terms of staff treatment when in terms of work delivered there may be little difference. Those on the periphery suffer certain specific disadvantages whose continued existence is inequitable and unacceptable in contemporary forward-thinking organisations. It is a vehicle for abuse, intentional or non-intentional, and discrimination. Colleagues on short-term contracts can lose their jobs simply because of personality clashes.
t.3: Young people are not worried about short-term contracts (a) The majority of researchers view a short-term employment contract as of lesser value than, and inferior to, one that is permanent. (b) Surveys indicate that in fact many researchers are not "young".
t.4: It is the natural consequence of the nature of research council funding Funding councils do not in general prescribe the nature of staff employment. It is a matter for institutions.
t.5: The task is for a specific period only. The development of ideas is not "start/stop". It is difficult to start development of new ideas from scratch. Research activity benefits from continuity and controlled core evolution of research groups[23] (and most scientific research appears to be conducted in this way). Research projects are vehicles to develop ideas.
t.6: Universities cannot accept the risk of fluctuating income. In the past, income for teaching activities was inherently stable. For a number of years this has no longer been the case, and universities already accept the risk of fluctuating income in regard to teaching staff.
t.7: It encourages people to move on, and this is needed to bring "new blood" into research groups. a) For many research groups, most "new blood" is brought in via graduating PhD students. b) There is a presumption that researchers will never move on if they have permanent

contacts. In fact experience with permanent staff indicates that turnover of researchers on permanent contracts might still be higher than desirable.
t.8: University research posts are meant for training only. There exists a stereotype that researchers on short-term contracts have all recently completed a PhD and take a number of short-term contracts as "trainee" researchers before either moving to industry or obtaining a lectureship, (so-called "Post Docs", or "PDRAs"). Surveys indicate a different picture.
t.9: There are enough overseas applicants It can cause recruitment and retention problems, and it limits the pool of potential staff.
t.10: Short-term employment contracts are needed for flexibility. We suspect that the flexibility is needed because of widespread inadequacies in the quality of academic management—failures to plan properly, failures to resource properly, and failures to obtain the best from research teams.
t.11: It's a way of filtering people. It allows people to "prove" themselves. If no steps are taken to renew a contract before its expiry, then the individual is automatically made redundant. An excuse for feeble management. If a probationary period is wanted, it should operate precisely as it operates for staff appointed on permanent contracts. In their case, positive steps must be taken before the end of the probationary period if the appointment is not to be confirmed.
t.12: It is easy to remove people who disagree or who are not performing Another excuse for feeble management: there is no need to manage difficult people—you just don't renew their contract. It restricts the questioning that is essential for good research. Academic freedom is a cornerstone of our institutions, yet somehow it is deemed irrelevant for a large section of university staff. A short-term researcher is effectively gagged. To disagree with their manager (usually a senior lecturer or professor) can result in non-renewal of contract with no reason required. Even when the researcher knows that the contract will not be renewed, he or she is still beholden to the line manager for a reference. A system using time-limited contracts on a wide scale invites abuse.
t.13: It helps to keep people hungryThis argument was discredited over 100 years ago.
t.14: Permanent contracts for researchers will lead to mediocrity Are we to gather that researchers who are already employed

on permanent contracts (ie usually lecturers and professors) are mediocre?
t.15: I used to worry about it but there was nothing I could do about it and in any event people accept it. There is an unchallenged and widespread assumption in institutions that short-term funding requires short-term employment contracts. A study carried out by the Personnel Department at Manchester University concluded that there was little, if any difference in legal risk between employing someone on a short-term contract and on a permanent contract.
t.16: It is too difficult to change the system. It can be done within the existing system with only minor changes.
t.17: Short-term contracts do provide a measure of security for the duration of the contract At any time during the short-term contract the university can terminate a contract of employment on three months' notice.
t.18: It is cheap to operate—it only costs the occasional advertisement and the cost of contract renewal. The true cost has never been calculated, but as well as the obvious administrative cost of re-issuing many contracts over the years to the same individual, the cost of problematic completion of research contracts (talented and knowledgeable colleagues moving on before their contract end), and the loss of expertise leads to a weaker profile and standing of the research unit. New members of a group can take around six months to become productive because of the amount of local knowledge that is needed. The cost has to be calculated.

A.2  What are the implications for researchers and their careers?

  At the same time as directly contributing to mission-critical research work, CRS are often viewed as being second-class. They do not receive due credit for their research work, including for example authorship of research papers and writing research proposals. Additionally they will often be engaged in mainstream teaching activities, such as preparing and presenting lectures and supervising PhD students, for which again they are not credited. Indeed, their research funding is essentially subsidising this teaching activity.

  Careers cannot be planned, since CRS are not in control—they can be destroyed due to the whim of an individual grant-holder. Seeking another job may mean a need to change research domain (within a higher-level discipline) which hinders the development of expertise and standing. It is the PhD which provides the training period; CRS are already experts in their own right (although of course they will have a range experience), and a contract research post is part of a research career rather than being merely training for it. However, a series of fixed-term contracts does not constitute a career.

  Even though there is a clearly defined Research pay-scale, with promotion up to Research Professor a possibility, in practice there is often a lack of obvious promotion prospects or career path unless one becomes a lecturer. Again there is a reliance on the grantholder making sure that the cost of promotion has been factored into the grant. Indeed, a lecturing post may not necessarily be the ultimate goal, but is sought because it offers the only route to a more stable open-ended contract. Ironically, some lecturing posts may essentially be made research-only in an attempt to attract research "stars". CRS are sometimes able to achieve promotion, even up to professorial level, but even then the university is very reluctant to consider an open-ended contract if it has decided that the funding is "fixed-term".

  Much is made of the flexibility of short-term research contracts allowing (or forcing) staff to move between institutions. However, there may only be a very small number of dispersed institutions engaged in a particular line of research. Due to personal commitments, not everyone is able to relocate, making finding a new job very difficult. Other aspects, such as starting a family, are highly problematic, bringing a whole new meaning to "family planning".

  The model in the Roberts report seems to make assumptions about the young age of CRS, and claims that short-term contracts facilitates the cross-fertilization of ideas. It doesn't appear to take into account older CRS, nor of people coming back into academia from industry. Roberts also assumes that all CRS have PhDs, and doesn't acknowledge that CRS may well have alternative but equally desirable forms of experience. Moving into industry from a University environment may be not be a real option, especially over a certain age, because of ageism and because of a poor perception within industry of University research careers (for example staff would not be happy working regular hours, or following instruction). With modern electronic global communication, regular international conferences or the possibility of secondments, there are more direct mechanisms available for promoting cross-fertilization of ideas—forcing someone to leave is high risk since it may mean that they are lost altogether.


  Although the Roberts Review identifies certain problems caused by the CRS model, it includes several unchallenged assumptions about the way universities operate and then proposes an employment model, based on these, which still relies on a significant number of staff being on fixed-term contracts. Here, we consider some of these assumptions.

  In 5.1 (p.144) Roberts makes an immediate distinction between academic staff (presumably lecturers) and academic-related staff, ie CRS.

  We do not find any real distinction between "academic" and "CRS" in terms of the actual jobs that are done. The differences lie in contract type, whether staff can hold a grant, sit on Senate and so on.

  This distinction produces several consequences within Roberts:

    —  it portrays CRS as wanting to "progress onto" an academic career, rather than already undertaking work which is part of it;

    —  p147 talks about lack of training which "means that CRS are poorly prepared for potential careers", with the implication that CRS are still [young] trainees looking for a "proper" job;

    —  that CRS will be "under the supervision and direction of the PI" (p145), and that it is the PI, "usually a member of academic staff who leads the research and coordinates the activities within the group".

  However we find that, far from being exclusively junior trainees, CRS have a wide range of experience, with a significant number writing grants, running laboratories or leading their own research groups (although they may not be acknowledged with this work).

  Roberts discusses the ARCS survey results (p148), which identified "kinds" of CRS within the current system. It then treats this as the required model and tries to use it to justify its 3-tier system, which is little more than a re-badging of what we currently have. For example, "anything which de-emphasises preparation for jobs outside academia would be a retrograde step" (p151).

  Finally, we wish to focus on one justification for the use of short-term contracts because of the claimed effects of the "variability of contract research ... topic":

    —  5.7 claims that contract research "offers a number of key advantages. In particular ... that staff resources can be better directed towards topics of current relevance and importance, as identified by the research councils".

    —  Footnote 185 in 5.18 questions whether "research associates are able to apply their skills effectively across a range of research topics and fields, as the portfolio of grant-supported work changes."

  We do not recognise the model underlying these statements, that research agendas for institutions are set externally and require the formation of a new research team for each project.

  Instead it is research teams themselves within universities who are at—and pushing forward—the leading edge, submitting research grant proposals to research councils and other funders to support their work. It is not generally the case that each new project will require a new team. It is crucial that the team can maintain continuity and retain expertise (in any case there would be a natural turnover of staff).

  The personnel within a research team will have a spectrum of skills and for each project will undertake a variety of roles: project management, writing proposals, developing new ideas, undertaking experimental work, analysing results, writing papers, and so on. For each project, the role of each member may change. Roberts assumes CRS have a static set of skills. In fact all members, including CRS, will constantly be developing their skills as work progresses. In other words, it is highly likely that CRS will have the skills to work on the next research project, because they will have contributed to the grant proposal and will therefore be changing the research portfolio of their team.

  A stable research team will increase (rather than reduce) its capability, for developing (rather than responding to) new areas of interest.

21 June 2002

23   A research group is composed of a number of professors, lecturers and short-term research staff. The professors and lecturers are often, but not always, permanent members of staff. For example, at Manchester, the post of Professorial Research Fellow is a short-term appointment. Back

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