Select Committee on Science and Technology Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 91-99)



  Chairman: Can I welcome you all here. David will start asking the questions.

Mr Heath

  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.

  92. Tom?
  (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 think—and the employers agree with us—should 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 that—they have almost taken everything we are going to say—from 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 here—it 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.

Mr McWalter

  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.

Mr Heath

  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 dare—dare—tell 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.

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