Friday, 14 December 2007

Labour 'flexibility' in our universities

I went to a meeting of the Universities and Colleges Union the other day, about fixed-contract staff at the university. I'm on a fixed-term contract myself which will shortly be ending, so this is of more than academic interest for me. I was astounded by the statistics presented. Apparently, in 2005/6 the proportion of research staff at UK universities who were on fixed-term contracts was 85%! And at Manchester, it was 94%! Although the University of Manchester is supposed to be committed to reducing the number of fixed-term contracts, the proportion has only decreased to 94%, from 96% in 2004/5. Meanwhile, the proportion of teaching staff on fixed-term contracts has soared from 46% to 63%. The proportion of staff responsible for both teaching and research who are on fixed term contracts has declined significantly, from 24% in 2004/5 to 12% in 2005/6.

This raises a number of problems. Staff who are both teachers and researchers (i.e. they are lecturers, readers or professors) are generally responsible for heading up research groups, chasing up funding, and supervising research. They're the brains of the operation, if you like. But the backbone, the people who are responsible for most of the actual research, are post-docs on short-term contracts and graduate students. Research is essentially being done by temps.

Since they have no long-term job security, post-docs tend to leave as soon as they have an opportunity to do so. Especially as only around 20% of post-docs will ever get a permanent position as a lecturer. Essentially you have the option of sticking around on short-term contracts until you become unemployable, or you go and get a proper job. People tend to stay longer than maybe they should, because research is what they want to do, and they'll put up with a lot to keep doing it. There are post-docs at Manchester who have been here for over 10 years, all on short-term contracts.

Obviously, this is stressful and demoralising for individual post-docs. But it also can't be good for research. Good people leave, and those who stay are looking over their shoulder. And after training for many years to become a post-doc, at the bottom rung of the academic ladder, you can't blame people for thinking that they deserve better.


dvnutrix said...

Short-term contracts are appalling. It just never stops. I remember being at a workshop some time ago when I realised that of the 110+ people in the room, 6 them had tenure or decent contracts. People in their 40s were moving around every couple of years, picking up gigs filling in for sabatticals etc.

It is miserable.

PhD scientist said...

It's a dog's life, Paul. I especially feel for the contract folk who are 30-something and clearly want to settle down, or who sometimes already have families. And it should be said that staying in the same place is often taken to be a mark against people as it shows a lack of "ambition"

My most talented ex-postdoc jumped ship to industry after 2.5 yrs of a 3-yr grant for exactly these sort of reasons. And my longest-serving research sidekick moved to Pharma after it became clear the Univ didn't rate him and refused to support his application for a Fellowship. Him: "But if I get this fellowship in open competition doesn't it prove I'm good enough?"
Them: "oh no, you might get it just because WE gave you our support"

I also agree about it having the effect of skill-draining from labs. I once compared our research group (loose association of several academics and their sidekicks) with our major direct competitors in the US and Australia. A major difference was that they managed to hold on to their best lab personnel with rolling contracts to stay doing lab work into their 30s. In the UK the best people disappear before a 3 yr grants is up (see above) because they know the odds on your being able to raise the cash to keep them on are so lousy. Unless you are a postdoc working for a big Prof with a renewable Programme Grant it's a mug's game.

Paul Wilson said...

I'm lucky in working for a big Prof who brings in a lot of industry funding, so I can probably continue at Manchester for a good while yet. At the moment, though, I'm having difficulty in seeing how I'm going to move up to the next level, as it were, and get a lectureship. There are a lot more post-docs than there are lectureships. Do I want to plug away for a few more years, build up a publication record, and keep trying for lectureships? I'm increasingly thinking that the game isn't worth the candle, and I'd be better getting out of academia.