Concordat on researchers’ employment rights divides opinion

Unions say the pledge to reduce the use of fixed and short-term contracts won’t tackle a problem it says is ‘endemic’

A new agreement to tackle insecure employment for academics has received a mixed response.

Prof Julie Buckingham, chair of the Concordat Strategy Group (CSG), said the statement will build a “healthy and supportive culture”.

But union bosses described the announcement as “disappointing”. The University and College Union (UCU) said employers “should be obliged to work with trade unions to reduce the use of fixed-term contracts”.

The ‘Concordat to Support the Career Development of Researchers’ commits employers “to reducing the use of fixed, particularly short term, contracts, providing bridging facilities, and flexible criteria for maternity and paternity benefits”.

Read more: War of words worsens as pension strikes loom

Despite clashes between unions and employers, figures on ‘casualisation’ only became available this year.

In January 2019, Hesa revealed one-third of academics were employed on fixed-term contracts.

But the scale of casualisation may be far higher; 16,000 researchers are employed in, what Hesa classifies as, ‘atypical’ roles with zero-hour contracts. Hesa describes atypical roles as those “whose working arrangements are not permanent, involve complex employment relationships and/or involve work away from the supervision of the normal work provider”.

We feel an opportunity has been missed to tackle job insecurity and the continued use of fixed-term contracts
– Paul Bridge, University and College Union

University and College Union (UCU) estimate 68% of all researchers could now be employed on contracts which it says are “damaging for staff and students”.

In a recent UCU survey of nearly 4,000 researchers, 81% said insecure working conditions had negatively impacted research.

Prof Julie Buckingham, who is also the new chair of Universities UK, said: “[The concordat] resets the bar and provides fresh impetus for progress over the next 5 to 10 years towards the long-term ambition of driving systemic change and creating the healthy and supportive culture needed to ensure our researchers are given every opportunity to thrive.”

UCU head of higher education Paul Bridge said: “Whilst we welcome the new concordat as an improvement on previous versions, we feel an opportunity has been missed to tackle job insecurity and the continued use of fixed-term contracts.

“The endemic use of precarious contracts in universities is damaging for staff and students and the overwhelming majority of researchers complain that their work has been impacted by being on short-term contracts.”

Cancer Research UK, UK Research and Innovation, Wellcome Trust and the UK Research Staff Association (UKRSA) have all signed the new agreement.

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