Contract Research Staff

Part of the debate – in the Scottish Parliament at 1:08 pm on 22nd November 2001.

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Photo of Sylvia Jackson Sylvia Jackson Labour 1:08 pm, 22nd November 2001

I congratulate Alex Neil and Richard Simpson on their motions. I welcome the sentiments that they contain about a complete overhaul of the management system and adopting a radical new approach, in partnership with employers and representatives of research staff.

What is badly needed is a career structure. A prospective contract researcher who wrote to me said:

"As someone who may have to face the reality of being employed as a researcher on a fixed term contract, I am concerned about the possibility of my career being far shorter than I'd like it to be. The Scottish Parliament, I think, has rather impressively addressed the issue of school teachers pay and conditions, but it has neglected problems such as these that face teachers & researchers in universities."

I speak as a former contract researcher, although that was in the 1980s. My main recollection was the flurry of activity near the end of my contract. Would it be extended? What other contract would I get? How far would I have to travel? In the end I decided that I did not want the uncertainty that came with contract research and left it to return to teaching. The figures that members have used show that mine was not an isolated case. One has to ask how much expertise is being lost as contract researchers move away from research.

Various groups have fought the cause. Alex Neil said that we have been fighting on this issue for 20 years, so it dates back to my time as a contract researcher. In education, the British Educational Research Association and its Scottish equivalent have been very active. More generally, the Association of University Teachers has been involved, as have other unions in the higher education sector. The Scottish Trades Union Congress's higher education forum has also discussed the matter with the minister and with SHEFC.

What is desperately needed is a career structure for contract researchers. That would address the problem of fixed-term contracts and the insecurity that they bring. The Scotsman said:

"Dickensian conditions lead to brain drain of university staff", and reported that the AUT has stated that the situation is

"damaging Scotland's reputation for research."

Is not it possible to look to other countries where experience has shown universities a better way of doing things? We could run pilots. I know that the AUT has various models that we could pursue. Let us get going with some of those models. We very much need change in this area, and soon.