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.