I recently went to the annual Vitae conference here in Manchester. Lots of the sessions were really good, and it gave me the chance to meet one of the co-chairs of the UK Research Staff Association, as well as one of the regular bloggers on Vitae’s Research Staff Blog (see http://vitae.ac.uk/researchers/156431/Research-staff-blog.html).
However, one of the most interesting sessions was about Vitae’s recent report on the Fixed Term working legislation and how it has been implemented by Universities (see my previous posts at https://researchstafftraining.wordpress.com/2010/08/10/understanding-the-fixed-term-working-legislation/ and https://researchstafftraining.wordpress.com/2010/08/18/more-on-fixed-term-working/). There was some really interesting discussion about how useful the legislation has been in improving the working conditions of research staff and what the limitations of the legislation are. A couple of key points that came from discussion that I thought might be worth sharing are:
- That we need to remember that the legislation was not created in response to the situation in Higher Education and it therefore does not (and was never intended) to solve the problem of fixed-term working for research staff per se. While research staff are covered, then, the legislation isn’t perfect in dealing with the particular situation of many research staff.
- That the difference between a ‘fixed-term’ and ‘open-ended’ contract really just means that the end date of employment is not specified in the latter. People (myself included) can be employed on an ‘open-ended’ contract which is subject to a certain funding stream and, if and when that funding stream ends, the post ends too. It may be that the person is then redeployed, but an open-ended contract no more guarantees continued employment in the current post than a fixed-term contract does.
- That employees in open-ended contracts may well be offered an alternative role through redeployment when project funding expires. For those who enjoy researching for others, that’s fine, but for those who are trying to carve out their own academic careers, moving from one project to another, unrelated, project is not ideal. In this case researchers need to decide whether continuity of employment is more important than building a strong academic CV. The two are not always entirely incompatible, but researchers who do aspire to academia need to be aware of how their research career is progressing, and to think carefully about how their experience is represented on their CV.
- Whether the insecurity experienced by many research staff is related to fixed-term working, or whether it is really part of what it means to be a researcher. Project funding is almost always limited, and some academics have carved out a career funded almost entirely by a series of short-term projects.
- That some research staff enjoy the flexibility offered by fixed-term working, and enjoy the opportunity to get involved in different projects.
- That, having the ‘tag’ of ‘permanent’ or ‘open-ended’ can nevertheless have other benefits including helping researchers to get mortgages. Even though it may not equate to a job for life, then, a ‘permanent’ contract can be helpful in other ways.
I think the main message of the session was that there may well be benefits to being moved from a fixed-term to an open-ended contract, but for most researchers it isn’t necessarily the best way to achieve their career goals. Researchers need to be clear what they will gain from such a move, and also the challenges that a change in contract won’t solve.
There is some useful information and helpful templates on the University and Colleges Union (UCU) website that you may want to investigate if you are coming to the end of a contract and want to apply for the University to recognise you as a ‘permanent’ employee. You do have to have been continually employed here at Manchester on a succession of (at least 2) short-term contracts for at least 4 years (see http://www.ucu.org.uk/index.cfm?articleid=3546 ).