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Taking action in higher education

Fewer than 4% of new academic research jobs are permanent, says report

22 November 2007 | last updated: 14 December 2015

A survey of currently advertised research jobs in UK universities by UCU shows that casualised short-term contracts remain the norm for staff beginning their careers with 96.5% of the posts being fixed-term.

This is despite guidance agreed by the employers' body, the University and Colleges Employers' Association (UCEA), and trade unions which discourages the abuse of fixed-term contracts. The guidance for employers in higher education, published in 2002, said that 'indefinite contracts should be the normal form of employment'.

The survey comes as part of a new report from UCU that shows that overall more than two-thirds of academics (70 per cent) are still being given fixed-term contracts when they start employment. The report, Fixed-term: the scandal continues, analyses all new academic appointments in 2005 (the latest statistics available) and scrutinises researcher jobs recently advertised on an academic jobs website.

The report reveals that:

  • Only 3.5 per cent of university research jobs advertised on on Wednesday 7 and Thursday 8 November 2007 were permanent positions
  • 70 per cent of all academics starting continuous employment in UK higher education were employed on fixed-term contracts
  • 32 per cent of teaching-and-research academics starting continuous employment were employed on fixed-term contracts. The University of Brighton was the worst offender with 81% of teaching-and-research academics starting in 2005 on a fixed-term contract. Nottingham Trent (80%), Southampton Solent (78%), Lancaster (63%), Cambridge (59%), Ulster (58%) and Cardiff (51%) universities all had more than 50% of teaching-and-research academics starting on a fixed-term contract
  • 72 per cent of teaching-only academics starting continuous employment were employed on fixed-term contracts. There were 15 higher education institutions which only used fixed-term contracts for teaching-only academics entering continuous employment in 2005
  • 96 per cent per cent of research-only academics starting continuous employment were employed on fixed-term contracts. There were nine higher education institutions which only used fixed-term contracts for research-only academics entering continuous employment.

You can see the full breakdown of institutions in the report:

Despite new regulations - the Fixed Term Employees (Prevention of Less Favourable Treatment) Regulations were introduced in 2002 - designed to reduce the use of fixed-term contracts, the report reveals that the majority of UK universities are continuing to use temporary contracts as the default position for most vacancies and new posts.

The regulations state that employees who have had their contract renewed or who are on at least their second contract and have four years' service can regard their posts as permanent. In effect, staff who have been employed since July 2002 should have seen their contracts made permanent in July 2006.

UCU general secretary, Sally Hunt, said: 'I think it is a source of great shame for UK higher education that only the hotel and catering sector employs a greater percentage of staff on temporary contracts. The widespread use of fixed-term contracts is the unacceptable underbelly of higher education in this country.

'Despite specific guidance agreed by the employers and trade unions to discourage the abuse of fixed-term contracts universities seem to be ignoring it and persisting with short term and short-sighted employment practices, in fact it is getting worse. The best brains in Britain are held in positions of insecurity and it is no wonder that they look for jobs abroad or outside higher education.

'The UK needs to attract the best academics in both research and teaching if it is to continue to compete internationally, yet our universities' employment policies mean that the majority of those now starting out on an academic career still face instability and uncertainty. This report is an appalling indictment of UK universities and they must do more to end the blight of a casualisation culture which is damaging both to those who suffer it and to our reputation at home and abroad.'