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


Memorandum submitted by Universities UK and University and College Employers' Association (UCEA)

  Universities UK and UCEA are pleased to submit this memorandum to the Science and Technology Select Committee. Contract research staff (CRS) play a key role in research activities and it is vital that they are not disadvantaged particularly as regards their terms and conditions of employment and arrangements for their career management.


  1.  Over five years ago, in 1996, Universities UK, together with the Research Councils, the Royal Society and the British Academy, the Funding Councils and others recognised that staff working on short fixed term contracts were at a significant disadvantage with regard to their career structure, training, and salary structure. We therefore agreed a Concordat to improve conditions and set up the Research Careers Initiative (RCI) in 1997 to monitor and report on its implementation.

  3.  Those reports demonstrate significant improvements year-on-year since 1997 particularly in changing the perception and culture of CRS within the HEIs. The recently published Roberts "SET for Success" report endorses and echoes this state-of-play.

  4.  The situation is changing and will be accelerated by a number of initiatives now taking place which will reinforce the aims of the Concordat, push forward the agenda for change, and will take forward the Concordat's objectives. It has therefore been agreed that the RCI should conclude with its final report in September 2002.

  5.  The outcome of Spending Review 2002 will have an impact on CRS, particularly if the funding needs outlined in the UUK submission—namely to modernise pay structures, enable recruitment and retention of top quality staff, and enhancement of staff management, development and training—are given a high priority.

  6.  A major initiative is also underway through the Funding Councils—"People in Research"—which it is hoped will take forward the progress made thus far through the Concordat.

  7.  In parallel, the Regulations on fixed term employees implementing the EU Directive on fixed term working come into force in October 2002. UCEA has been working with university personnel departments, the trade unions and the Department of Trade and Industry to ensure a smooth and effective implementation of the Directive. The Directive will reinforce Concordat aims by strengthening the terms, conditions and rights of fixed-term contract staff by improving human resources practice particularly with regard to career management and development. It will also require employers to move staff on such contracts to open-ended arrangements unless there is good reason not to. The Directive will apply to all fixed term staff, including CRS. There are cost implications linked to the Directive.

  8.  Despite these developments, there is some way to go before CRS have parity with their open-ended appointed colleagues. HESA statistics published in the Roberts "SET for Success", show that within an overall increase of CRS posts between 1994-95 and 1999-2000, the greatest overall increase has been in part-time CRS and posts occupied by women. There are some anecdotal indications that these groups could be at particular disadvantage on fixed term contracts.

  9.  With particular reference to the increasing number of part-time posts and women employed on fixed term contracts, it would be helpful if a specific study which focuses on CRS career development issues —for example attrition and promotion rates—for this group could be carried out.

  10.  Universities UK and UCEA would like to see the moves towards improved parity between open-ended and contract staff move forward effectively. The SR2002 settlement could play a significant role in moving things along. We also look to other initiatives such as HEFCE activities such as the Higher Education Funding Councils' "People in Research" initiative and the CRS On-line survey and through implementation of the EU Directive on fixed term contracts to ensure that progress is maintained.


  11.  Contract research staff have been a key factor in the success of short term research projects and longer term research reputations of institutions and have been used to provide the necessary flexibility in response to the short term nature of research project funding. The vast proportion of research support comes in discrete pots of restricted funds, including support for staffing.

  12.  The high number of fixed term contracts within the sector is a consequence of the dual support system, particularly the support given for research projects. It is a reflection of the selectivity, which Universities UK supports.

  13.  Contract research staff have many different career aspirations and needs. The Roberts Report identified three broad types of CRS:

    —  career starters (typically in their first or second contract who enter contract research to gain experience leading to a continuing academic position);

    —  career researchers (who have worked as CRS over a longer period of time and wish to remain in research); and,

    —   job entrants (who may enter contract research as a job but not explicitly to have a career in research).

  14.  Universities UK has consistently recognised that CRS have been at disadvantage when compared with staff on open-ended appointments, particularly with regard to career and personal development, and has supported initiatives to ensure that CRS are properly managed and receive career and developmental support. We were one of the initial authors of the Concordat, and we have maintained an active role in the Research Careers Initiative which has tracked its progress over the past five years. We are members of the RCI Steering Group, co-authors of the reports, as well as being involved in the design and setting up of surveys, conferences and similar to promote and monitor progress towards achieving Concordat aims.

  15.  The main achievement of the Concordat and the RCI over the past five years has been to directly change the perception of CRS within HEIs and to encourage the development of clear career structures based on the potential of the individual contract researcher. Since the Concordat was agreed and the RCI set up, there is evidence that conditions for CRS in HEIs have improved year-on-year.

  16.  The third interim RCI report published in September 2001 comments on the continuing progress within universities on introducing better induction and management for CRS and describes commitment to the RCI and its principles as "universal". A key finding from the RCI third interim report was the steady progress towards parity of treatment with other staff in all the support services. One notable example of this progress has been the introduction of appraisal systems for CRS across the HEIs.

  17.  The final RCI report (due to be published in September 2002) will summarise progress made since the Concordat was first set up. It will also, however, emphasize that there is still some way to go before CRS have parity with their open-ended contract equivalents.

  18.  It is particularly pleasing to see both the objectives and concerns which prompted the Concordat and the setting up of the RCI were roundly endorsed in the HM Treasury Roberts' Report "SET for Success", published in April 2002.

  19.  The Universities UK supports the findings of the Roberts Review and looks to the outcome of SR2002 to implement its findings, particularly with respect to CRS.

  20.  The outcome of Spending Review 2002 will have an impact on CRS, particularly if the needs outlined in the Universities UK submission—namely to modernise pay structures, enable recruitment and retention of top quality staff, and enhancement of staff management, development and training—are given a high priority.

  21.  Universities UK also looks to the Funding Councils and the Research Councils to strengthen and translate the Concordat aims by developing codes of practice. For example, the Funding Councils' work on "People in Research" will take forward aspects of the Concordat and we look towards that initiative to reinforce and strengthen the Concordat aims, particularly in the areas of career guidance, structure and management.

  22.  On the face of it, the effective implementation of the Fixed Term Employees Regulations in October 2002 should also provide further improvement in the employment conditions of CRS. These will reinforce the good practice outlined in the Concordat aims by ensuring parity of treatment with permanent staff and reducing the potential disadvantages of remaining on a series of fixed term contracts over a considerable period of time. They will confirm the need for good Human Resources practice in all aspects of employment and particularly in career development. However, there is real concern among many universities, and among CRS themselves, that an effect of restricting the overall length of fixed-term contract employment will be to reduce rather than increase opportunities for continuing employment, since there can be no question of providing indefinite employment for all research staff and because of the inevitable reluctance of institutions to make large numbers of staff redundant. Consequently, the Regulations will by no means be wholly beneficial in their effect.

  23.  A number of other initiatives have also been inspired by the Concordat, such as the HEFCE-sponsored Contract Research On-line Survey. This initiative is furthering the implementation of the Concordat's objectives through the provision of CRS-generated data on working conditions, career aspirations, and career development opportunities and will provide further evidence of this sea change in perceptions.

  24.  Universities UK welcomes and supports these developments as milestones in taking forward Concordat objectives.


  25.  It is difficult to place an exact figure or number on the optimal level of CRS as this varies from project to project, and department, school, and faculty, institution to institution, and is dependent on funds available for research.

  26.  What is clear is that the overall number of CRS has increased over the past five years, reflecting the continuing growth in research activity in UK universities. From statistics quoted in the recently published "SET for Success" report, the overall number of CRS increased from just under 30,000 in 1994-95 to around 37,000 in 1999-2000. The just published 2002-01 figures show a further increase in posts to just over 39,000 posts.

  27.  These statistics also show within an overall increase of 34 per cent between 1994-95 and 2000-01, the overall percentage of male CRS has increased by about 20 per cent during this period, while the percentage of women has leapt by 58 per cent. The table of data is at Annex 1.

  28.  The current rate of overall transfer from CRS to open-ended appointment appears to be between 15-20 per cent, but there are no readily available or easily accessible statistics on the situation for women, particularly longitudinal data. As the proportion of women CRS increase, it is important that they are not at further disadvantage with regard to promotion either with regard to promotion within research grades or transfer to the academic mainstream. HEIs are taking steps to guard against this. However, there has not been a focused study undertaken to provide conclusive evidence as to whether this is the case.

  29.  Specific statistics on attrition rates by gender are also difficult to come by.

  30.  Also in terms of training and development, it would be helpful to know whether women are differentially disadvantaged by fixed term contract arrangements. A focused statistical analysis of data on these issues is long overdue.

  31.  There has also been a significant increase in the number of part-time CRS posts filled by both men and women, and similar questions can be posed for this group.


  32.  The proposed Regulations on Fixed-Term Employees[61] will come into force in the UK on 1 October 2002.

  33.  The DTI has proposed that the EU Directive on Fixed-Term Work will be implemented in the UK by the draft Fixed-Term Employees (Prevention of Less Favourable Treatment) Regulations 2002. The DTI has carried out final consultation on the draft regulations and universities await the final text as approved by Parliament.

  34.  The purpose of the legislation is:

    (i)  to protect employees engaged on fixed-term contracts from being treated less favourably than comparable employees on indefinite contracts

    (ii)  to prevent the potential abuse of continuous use of fixed-term contracts by limiting the overall duration of a series of fixed-term contracts to four continuous years (after 1 October 2002) after which the contract automatically becomes indefinite unless there is a justifiable objective reason for it continuing as a fixed-term contract

    (iii)  to ensure that employers inform fixed-term employees of vacancies within their organisation

    (iv)  to provide for collective or workplace agreements with either a trade union or other worker representatives to modify the effect of the provisions regarding successive fixed-term contracts.

    (v)  to allow employees to seek a remedy where the Regulations have been infringed.

  35.  Universities already provide appropriate parity on the main terms and conditions of service (see (i) above). This is already governed by the legislation on equal pay for work of equal value. Generally, information is also readily available on vacancies within universities and can be made more accessible where necessary (see (iii) above).

  36.  The SET Review (Roberts Report) believes that CRS posts should generally be seen as having a transitional rather than semi-permanent status (para 5.15). The Review also concludes that only staff on the Research Associate "trajectory" (or career path) should be placed on indefinite contracts. However, the transfer of all fixed-term staff to indefinite contracts (see (ii) above). will occur automatically after four continuous years service on a fixed-term contract that has been renewed or extended at least once unless there is an objective reason to justify it continuing as a fixed-term. The regulations do not define what an objective reason is. So it has yet to be ascertained whether short-term funding—particularly where it has already been renewed—will be accepted an objective reason.

  37.  To encourage and assist universities and HE colleges and their staff in the implementation of the Regulations, UCEA and the recognised unions drew up joint guidance which was completed in June 2002 (subject to the final text of the Regulations). A copy is at Annex 2.

  38.  What is important to note is that the short-term funding by its very nature will cease at some point and therefore the possibility of termination will still arise whether the post is on a fixed-term or an indefinite contract. The Report of the Independent Review of Higher Education Pay and Conditions in June 1999 (the Bett Report) recognised that more staff being offered indefinite contracts would lead to a greater risk of redundancy (para 217). It also acknowledged that one of the main reasons for universities relying on fixed-term contracts are the detailed termination and redundancy procedures laid down in the Model Statute by the University Commissioners in 1991. The Report expressed concern that these complex and drawn out procedures create impediments to good management and in turn lead to a substantial reliance on fixed-term contracts (para 221). Acting on this recommendation, the pre-92 universities have now proposed to the Privy Council a revised Model Statute that brings the disciplinary, grievance and termination procedures for pre-92 academic and related staff in line with good practice as recommended by ACAS.

  39.  The new Regulations will impose costs on universities. First of all, the removal of the waiver clause for redundancy payments will mean that from October 2002 the full cost of redundancy payments will fall on the university. The funding providers have refused to finance this cost in their grant. Secondly, where the ending of funding leads to termination of contracts which have become indefinite, operation of termination procedures will require significant staff and input.

  40.  The new regulations coupled with the development of career structures and the provision of staff development and training will enhance the management of contract research in universities. However, it will remain for the majority a pathway to a career elsewhere. Others will be attracted to join companies competing in the same labour market so that universities will have to pay competitive salaries to attract and retain the right calibre of staff. The Universities UK in its submission to the Spending Review has identified for government the necessary increase in funding which this will require.

  41.  Universities UK supports the Directive's objectives of improved working conditions for CRS. We are working closely with the Universities, Funding and Research Councils, trade unions and others to ensure that these changes are introduced smoothly and efficiently.

21 June 2002

61   The Report of the Independent Review of Higher Education Pay and Conditions June 1999. Back

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