Getting precarity back on the agenda


 Policy article by Dr Yolana Pringle, Head of Policy and Advocacy

Contract on table with pen and glasses case

We welcome the report released by the University and College Union (UCU) this morning and echo the call to improve the level of support for researchers facing precarity. 

Insecure employment for research staff appears to be endemic. While the sector is concerned with shifting the dial on many aspects of research culture, there has been little change in the number of research staff on fixed-term contracts in the past 10 years (currently 67%). What is interesting about this report is that it highlights the wide variety of practice between institutions across the UK, and considerable effort by staff at some institutions at an individual and department level, suggesting that there is much to learn from others.

The report synthesises the findings of Freedom of Information requests from 98 UK higher education institutions. The aim of the FOIs was to build a league table of the level of support provided to staff on insecure contracts. On this, the findings are less than ideal. The highest score was only 64, and only 8 institutions scored over 50 points. While most institutions scored highly in at least one category, none did well across the board. There was also no obvious correlation between the type of institution and what they are doing to tackle insecure employment. 

Delving into the detail, practices around employment for research staff look quite different, even within institutions. The majority of respondents reported that they use a mix of contract types for research staff, or have no standard contract (85%. While many opt for fixed-term contracts, some institutions have also made a decision to replace these with (arguable just as insecure) open-ended but limited by funding contracts.

The majority of respondents paid only statutory redundancy pay to research staff at the end of a fixed-term contract. 59% of respondents reported offering some form of bridging funding, but in most cases this was done on a case-by-case basis, and usually where future funding was already, or likely to be secured. Only the University of Manchester offered an enhanced paid notice period to research only staff on fixed-term contracts.

Despite the largely negative tone of the report, there are also positive notes that indicate the considerable effort of staff at many institutions to support researchers on fixed-term contracts. Over a quarter of institutions (26%) responded that in the last 24 months 60% of researchers coming to the end of their fixed-term contract or project have been successfully redeployed or had their contract extended. This rises to over a third (38%) for institutions able to provide a response for that question. Clearly, much time and effort has gone into making this happen.

The report also signals a need for more robust data collection on redeployment within institutions. While 90% of respondents reported that they offered some form of redeployment, just under 30% of institutions were unable to answer a question on what percentage had been successfully redeployed in the last 24 months. As the report notes: ‘if you are not measuring this, how do you know how successful your measures are?’

Vitae members will know that the obligations under the Employment principle of the Concordat to Support the Career Development of Researchers remain some of the most challenging for institutions. The obligation on employers to ‘Seek to improve job security for researchers, for example through more effective redeployment processes and greater use of open-ended contracts’, in particular, has not received the same level of action as others. This raises questions about what needs to be done at a sector level around or beyond the Concordat. Indeed, while all but 10 respondents were signatories to the Concordat, there is no clear correlation between being a signatory and the level of support on job security.

We support UCU’s call for a more sustainable model for research in UK higher education, and read their suggestions with interest. While this will need change at a systemic level, there is still much that higher education institutions can learn from each other. On that, this report is a useful starting point.