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‘Two-thirds of research-only staff are on precarious contracts’

Image: Tim Pierce [CC BY 2.0], via Flickr   

University and College Union says figure hits 90 per cent at some universities

The University and College Union has published a report saying that 66 per cent of research-only staff in UK universities are employed on fixed-term contracts—a figure the UCU suggests has changed little in the past decade.

If The Sunday Times thinks that the open and acknowledged process of recruiting international students via agents is higher education’s dirty little secret, it is wrong. Two-thirds of research-only staff being on precarious contracts might be closer to the mark.

The UCU report—titled Support for Research Staff—is based on freedom of information requests to 103 research-active institutions, combined with Higher Education Statistics Agency data on research staff terms of employment. The results show that at some institutions, almost all research-only staff are on fixed-term deals.

The concerns hold true at some pretty illustrious institutions, too. For example, 88 per cent of research-only employees at the University of Oxford—which has the most research staff of all the institutions included in the report—do not have permanent contracts, the UCU finds. It really is pretty concerning.

A spokesperson for Oxford told Research Professional News that the university was “aware of staff’s concerns about the use of fixed-term contracts in some areas, particularly those supported by short-term sources of external funding”.

“Our current university-wide pay and conditions review is exploring these arrangements and considering approaches that might be taken to reduce the percentage of staff on fixed-term contracts.”

The UCU report also says that nearly a third of universities (30 per cent) were unable to say whether research staff were redeployed at the end of their contract. Most institutions said that they paid only statutory redundancy pay to research staff dismissed at the end of a fixed-term contract, while only one—the University of Manchester—said it offered “enhanced paid notice periods” to such employees.

The report scores universities out of 100 for their policies. The highest score—achieved by the University of Leeds—is just 64, and only eight universities score above 50. League tables are always to be taken with a pinch of salt, but whatever way you look at it, it isn’t great.

The UCU sets out a series of recommendations for employers to help stamp out precarious research contracts, including committing to reducing the use of fixed-term contracts, moving research staff into more secure forms of employment and providing greater support for staff reaching the end of their contract.

‘Poor scores across the board’

Jo Grady, general secretary of the UCU, said the report “shines a light on an area that universities would rather keep shrouded in darkness—namely the widespread use of gig economy-style short-term contracts for the staff who prop up university research departments”.

“The poor scores across the board on areas like fixed-term contracts, proper redeployment processes and decent redundancy provision speak of a sector that urgently needs to update its attitudes to employment practices,” she said.

Grady pointed out that the current funding model for much UK research allows employers to “blame the system for their choice of employment practices”.

“Universities need to…commit to reducing the use of fixed-term contracts and move their research staff to genuinely secure contracts,” Grady concluded. “And they need to put systems in place that support continuity of employment and minimise the risk of redundancy at the end of funded research projects.”

Raj Jethwa, chief executive of the Universities and Colleges Employers Association, said that the latest Higher Education Statistics Agency data regarding contract types show that across the sector as a whole, 70 per cent of staff in academic roles—so not just those on research-only deals—are on permanent contracts, up from 67 per cent in 2021-22.

“Higher education institutions use small numbers of flexible contracts for research staff, which are usually linked to external funding awards,” he added. “The employment arrangements within autonomous universities are for institutional-level discussions.”

New numbers

Today’s UCU report is based on last year’s data (which cover 2021-22)—although that does not render it unimportant. However, it is perhaps unfortunate that the Higher Education Statistics Agency yesterday released the latest academic staff demographic and contractual information, covering 2022-23, as referred to by Jethwa.

Away from contract information, it shows that science and engineering ‘cost centres’ (roughly equating to disciplines for academic staff) have the highest proportion of academic staff aged 40 or under. Chemistry and chemical engineering are particularly youthful, with 60 per cent of their academic staff yet to reach the top of the hill.

Education and continuing education show the oldest age profile, with only 25 per cent and 24 per cent of academic staff in these cost centres aged 40 or younger, according to the data.

This article is an extract from the Research Professional News 8am Playbook email, published this morning. To enquire about subscribing to Playbook, please fill in this form and include ‘8am Playbook’ as the subject.

A version of this article also appeared in Research Fortnight