Examination of Witnesses (Questions 91-99)|
WEDNESDAY 3 JULY 2002
Chairman: Can I welcome you all here. David
will start asking the questions.
91. Let us start off with exactly the question
that we ended up with. You have heard nine fed up people whose
fault is it?
(Ms Hunt) It is a range of institutions that are at
fault. The last speaker pointed out the inability of people to
apply for their own grants. I think it is very important that
it is understood that if you have not got control of your own
funding you are in a very vulnerable situation in the university
in terms of how someone who might be senior to you may feel that
they need to take notice of you or give you good career structures,
good career paths, good terms and conditions at the most basic
level in order that you might stay. I think if you address that
issue you would go a long way in terms of the power balances which
exist at the moment which actively detract from any security of
contract. That is one area which I think needs to be looked at.
The other area that is nothing exciting, nothing new, it is called
good management. It is about collective responsibility at a university
wide level. It is about recognising that though you may be an
extremely good academic that of itself does not necessarily make
you a good manager and there is need for better support, better
training, better monitoring of what is going on at a more devolved
level so that those at the bottom tiers, those coming through,
are able to feel that they are being supported and developed.
That is not, again, as I say, something which is very complicated
to address. Those two things of themselves would go a very long
way. Making sure that there are collective agreements that we
are negotiating currently at a national level, so that there are
base line agreements in terms of what happens for fixed-term contractors,
the ones which are then enacted between local union negotiators
and universities would also, I think, address this in a very practical
way. I think good funding overall. I think the university sector
has been woefully underfunded in such a way that all of these
particular individual stories, if you fit them into the rounder
picture, it is very obvious that a number of different areas which
are basically about lack of funding over a number of years have
underpinned a system which makes those vulnerable and makes those
people who are vulnerable unable to do anything about it. I would
not say one person or one group, I think there are a number of
areas which need to be addressed and unless they are all looked
at to a great extent this will continue.
(Mr Wilson) From NATFHE's perspective we would agree
certainly with all of that. The point I would emphasise in particular
is that it is perfectly possible to carry out very good high quality
research and employ researchers on indefinite contracts. There
are many examples of places where that happens, Robert Gordons
is one, the University of Gloucestershire is another. If you look
more globally at, say, the whole of the new university, the post-1992
institutions which tripled their share of RE departments rated
four, five and five star, in other words while the entire sector
did very well indeed, the post 92s did particularly well, in other
words they did far better. It is no coincidence that those institutions
employ a half or more of all their research staff, typically,
on indefinite permanent contracts. They did particularly well,
we would argue, precisely because they avoided all the kinds of
waste and inefficiency and low morale and stress of the kind you
have heard from the previous witnesses.
93. The examples you gave are institutions that
we know have moved over completely to open-ended contracts. With
all due respect to them they do not have a huge number of research
staff. Is it your genuine view that all research staff could be
moved over to open-ended contracts?
(Mr Wilson) I think there are two points there. Firstly
I would say it is precisely because they are starting from a very
low base that it is all the more remarkable, I think, they were
able to achieve such enormous increases in research quality given
their lack of infrastructure and the lack of assets and resources
they had to begin with. I think you can argue that both ways.
On the second point we have collectively negotiated with the HE
employers, all the academic unions and the other unions, an agreement
and it is here which sets out the criteria which we thinkand
the employers agree with usshould apply when fixed-term
contracts are being used. Now to answer your question we are not
saying that absolutely everybody should be on an open ended indefinite
contract but what we have agreed with the employers, and they,
with respect, are far closer to this than the Roberts Review was,
I think, are a set of criteria which would apply which would mean
that the vast majority would, we think, probably be able to be
placed on indefinite contracts.
94. How many have agreed?
(Mr Wilson) The employers who represent the entire
sector have signed up to this document.
95. How many are implementing it?
(Mr Wilson) It is not yet endorsed formally, as a
matter of fact, it will not be until July 15. We would hope certainly
and expect that every employer who is a member of the employers
association which has signed this would abide by this and implement
it. Indeed it would be helpful, frankly, if the Committee could
give it encouragement, support and recommend that they do so.
96. Can I give you a counter argument which
has been suggested to us in written responses. That short contracts
actually are of benefit to researchers themselves in learning
how to be an academic researcher. What is your response to that.
(Dr Williams) Can I answer that.
(Ms Hunt) Without swearing.
(Dr Williams) I should point out, I know you know,
that I am not a paid up AUT official, I am actually a lecturer
and have been through the system on 11 years of fixed-term contracts
and I am now on an open ended contract as a lecturer. I think
it is part of a general false reality or falsehood that you are
talking about there, the so-called pros and cons of fixed-term
contracts. I would say they are all cons. For instance, one of
the pros of being on a fixed-term contract is that there is flexibility.
Well, when your contract ends on August 31 how flexible is that
in delivering research? I think we have already heard thatthey
have almost taken everything we are going to sayfrom the
previous witnesses. I really do not think there is any benefit,
any need to have fixed-term contracts. I think what is happening
here is that research managers who, incidentally, you have not
got as witnesses hereit would be interesting to talk to
them they are coming out with almost things which seem
like folklore or myths. For instance I think specifics are useful
here. Talking to a very senior research manager in Manchester,
he said, with a completely straight face, open-ended contracts
will lead to mediocrity. Okay? It does not take much to think
about that, well why does it not apply to lecturing staff.
97. Is that rhetorical?
(Dr Williams) There is the whole issue of the need
for specialist skills and training. Again, applying that to lecturing
staff, why are they not being shipped out every three years? The
problem is that the management in universities are basically,
I would say, building on a false model of how research actually
gets delivered in universities which is by research teams consisting
of a range of people, unfortunately some are on fixed-term contracts,
some are on open-ended contracts but they are delivering research
with long-term goals, funding it by these small chunks of money.
98. When you responded earlier you talked about
the vulnerability and the inequality of the power equation. Some
of the contract researchers who have provided us with evidence
did not wish to be named.
(Ms Hunt) That does not surprise me.
99. Because they felt their careers would be
threatened by that. Is that a real concern?
(Ms Hunt) Sadly, yes, it is. It is not a story that
is limited to particular institutions, it is one where you could
find examples right across the sector and you could find it regardless
of the type of subject area. One point that I think it is very
important to emphasise here, it is not purely about the power
structure and therefore that being limited in terms of how it
affects you absolutely according to the work you are doing, it
is actually about your sex, it is actually about your race and
it is all of those areas which come into play. One of the questions
which you asked earlier was relating to maternity leave. On a
personal basis I have represented a number of women on fixed-term
contracts who suddenly get to the point where they are pregnant,
they are having a conversation with me about whether they daredaretell
their employer that they are pregnant because it happens to coincide
with them having to apply for a grant. Where that happens quite
often I am then representing them and they are saying I suddenly
do not have a job because the type of research has magically changed
therefore I cannot go back. It is not myth, it is something which
is actively precluding particular groups from progressing within
the academic world. It is making it possible for people who are
in positions of authority, not everyone by any extent, but certainly
those who are able to manage badly in a way which does not ever
get picked up. I think it is shameful, absolutely shameful and
what is worse you will never get the individuals to tell you the
stories because they are the very people who cannot risk it.