Contract Research Staff

Part of the debate – in the Scottish Parliament at 12:41 pm on 22nd November 2001.

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Photo of Des McNulty Des McNulty Labour 12:41 pm, 22nd November 2001

I declare an interest as a former president of the Association of Lecturers in Scottish Central Institutions, and as someone who worked in Glasgow Caledonian University for 20 years and spent five years as a member of the court of the University of Glasgow.

When talking about universities it is commonplace to talk about the binary system, referring to the split between old and new universities. It is equally important to talk about another two-tier system in higher education: the split between those people who enjoy a contractual protection in their employment as established lecturers and those whose employment rights are limited and whose security of employment is precarious—the contract researchers. It is striking how significant that group is.

There are 5,000 fixed-term contract research staff in Scotland, representing almost 5 per cent of fixed-term employees. Higher education has a spectacular share of that group. Many contract researchers have been in that position for a long time. The proportion of academic staff on fixed-term contracts has increased from 39 per cent to 42 per cent in the older universities. In the post-1992 universities, the number of academic staff on fixed-term contracts is now more than 50 per cent. The average length of service of contract researchers in some disciplines can stretch between six and 10 years. I have friends in the higher education system who have been on contract after contract, waiting for renewal until the last minute when they know that their employment can be secured. That is no way for them to construct a career and it is no way for us to conduct and manage research.

The Enterprise and Lifelong Learning Committee conducted an inquiry into the funding of teaching and research in higher education. One of our key conclusions was the importance of university research for the success of our economy. Within that we must ensure that the science strategy informs the ways in which we develop arrangements in the university sector. In that context we must bring the incentives for staff into line with achieving the objectives that we set in the strategy.

We must ensure that the universities are implementing a research agenda that fully involves staff and ensures that they are properly motivated to carry out their task. The only way to progress is by changing the terms of reference for contract research staff and giving them a much greater degree of security. I recognise that that will not be achieved easily and that we must take a partnership approach between the trade unions and the universities. It is a long-awaited task, which is important not only to the university sector but to Scotland as a whole. If we want to be a smart, successful Scotland, our smartest people, who are crucial to our success, need to be engaged in the process. They must be secure about their position in society and have a basis for developing their careers that will keep them here and contributing to Scotland.