Memorandum submitted by Professor Colin
Bryson, Department of Human Resource Management, Nottingham Trent
I should like to make some brief statements
to address the specific research questions the Committee is seeking
to investigate. This draws upon the research I have undertaken.
Does the preponderance of short-term research
contracts really matter? Why?
Although there may have been a sounder rationale
for a limited number of temporary research fellowships within
the academic employment system thirty years ago the nature and
the scale of the practice is now quite different. The great majority
of time and resources devoted to research in HE now comes through
contract research staff, 96 per cent of whom are employed on short-term
The number on short-term contracts is simply
beyond the capability of employers to manage therefore they do
not take responsibility and no other body has taken on this role.
Managers and planners have adopted a short-term view and see no
other alternative but to pass all the risk and uncertainty onto
the projects and the project employees.
It is a very arguable point that contract research
using fixed-term contract is an efficient and effective way to
manage research. A value for money analysis that exposes many
of the hidden costs presents compelling evidence that alternative
employment approaches may be more effective.
What are the implications for researchers and
There is virtually no career structure and therefore
it is impossible for managers and staff to plan and sustain research
careers. Some contract researchers have managed to hang on and
scrape through, contract after contract but this can be cut short
despite any effort they might make, by the vagaries of the system.
The continued uncertainties and precariousness
have a highly detrimental impact on most of the researchers. There
are some very sharp implications for equal opportunities. Note
that for most it is research they wish to do, and not become lecturing
staff (although some switch to this as a pragmatic choice). And
note well, that it is academic research that is the desired objective,
not a research post in industry. Although this may be unrealistic
for all, experienced researchers are an enormous asset both to
universities and to the science and engineering base and there
needs to be a much more coherent and planned approach to managing
Researchers, despite the high status of research
in universities, are isolated and excluded from the organisation.
Temporary contracts are a main cause of this and this leads to
a lack of commitment to the organisation and a disinclination
for more involvement by all parties in the employment relationship.
Although policies can be made more inclusive the fundamental divide
will continue to exist whilst temporary contracts are used.
Is there evidence that the present situation
causes good researchers to leave?
It is clear that researchers feel and are forced
out of research without realising their potential. Retention between
contracts is not based on merit or performance, but more on chance.
Able researchers have shown strong indicators of becoming very
disillusioned with the iniquities of the system.
The other point is that able researchers are
deterred from entering academic research. I could comment from
first-hand experience as the leader of the undergraduate dissertation
across several programmes in Nottingham Business School that it
is extremely difficult to persuade able graduates to undertake
postgraduate research as they are aware of how unattractive it
is to do so (and indeed one is disinclined to give such poor career
What would be the right balance between
contract and permanent research staff in universities and research
There may be a limited place for an initial
period of research training as an apprenticeship. However this
may perpetuate the present system as it was the origin of the
use of short-term contracts. It would have to a genuine apprenticeship
with the probability of a real career at the end of it. There
is a strong argument to appoint all researchers to permanent contracts
as there would still be an adequate level of turnover as a reasonable
proportion are likely to move on fairly quickly. Good management
should ensure that the incapable are moved on appropriately but
that the capable who should be retained, are retained.
Has the Concordat and the Research Careers
Initiative made any difference?
These initiatives have made very little difference
because they did not change any of the key parameters and forces
that maintain the present system. At local level, the level where
contract research is actually managed (or not managed) these policies
have been ignored. Indeed they have acted to reinforce myths and
stereotypes such as the belief that contract research is training
and development before a career in industry. This is simply not
the experience or the desire of the great majority of contract
researchers. Therefore there has been no tangible difference to
the system. Areas of good practice identified by the RCI were
already seeking to manage and organise these matters in a more
sensible way in any case.
How should policy move forward?
The key goal of any national policy initiative
should be to break the link between project and employmentthe
notion of "single contract" research. Research monies
need to be organised by universities in such a way to permit a
sharing of risk and longer-term planning, and to enable the operation
of an employment system with good human resource practices that
facilitates the attraction, retention and career management of
research staff. To get this started, there needs to be an incentive
for employers to do this because individual employers will perceive
this as a risk and they proved to be very risk averse.
Any policy approaches must be "joined up".
For example, consistent with other policy imperatives such as
the Research Assessment Exercise. The RAE rules tend to minimise
the recognition of the contribution of contract researchers. The
Research Councils also have a role to play by ensuring that these
policies support research careers. Dual funding is not truly dual
as it does not pay for the full costs of research. The rules of
some research councils also act against the interests of research
17 June 2002