UK postdocs eye contract changes

New rules ensuring more long-term employment are due to come into force in July; the country?s first national postdoc body is formed

By | June 1, 2006

Britain's postdoctoral researchers are watching closely to see how universities implement European Union laws designed to help employees obtain open-ended contracts, postdoc leaders have told The Scientist. However, some say they do not have high hopes. "It's going to be an interesting summer," Paul Andrews, a cell biologist who co-chairs the School of Life Sciences Postdoc Association at the University of Dundee, told The Scientist. "It is a great unknown at the moment because every university seems to have a subtly different approach" to increasing open-ended contracts, he added. Due to come into force on July 10, the new laws are supposed to ensure that staff members are moved into open-ended contracts after serving on fixed-term contracts for four years. Despite the supposed benefits of the new law, some postdocs fear it could have a negative effect on their careers, Andrews noted. "Speaking to postdocs at other universities," he said, "it seems that the changes in the law might mean that universities let some contracts drop when they end, which could stop someone from doing a piece of work they're involved in." Andrews said that some universities seemed to be playing a "waiting game" to see whether academics challenge their status at employment tribunals. "The trouble is that postdocs in many institutions are individuals without a postdoc association to support them," he said. Indeed, schools seem to be taking their time in making the transition to more long-term contracts. Last week, a survey by the Association of University Teachers (AUT) showed that short-term contracts are still common in universities. The online AUT survey garnered 1,283 responses from people on fixed-term and hourly contracts. More than half of respondents on fixed-term contracts (51.1%) said they had had at least three contracts at their institution. Nearly one in ten (9.4%) said they had had more than 10 contracts. "The pattern of use of fixed-term contracts also confirms what we have known for some time," AUT policy officer Jane Thompson said in a statement. "Staff are subjected to the successive use of short-term contracts over many years -- a pattern of employment far more suited to permanent contract use." Thompson said that the survey suggests that a high percentage of fixed-term staff will be able to meet the qualifying criteria for a permanent contract on July 10. However, employers seem to be doing little to prepare for the transition, Thompson added. "Whilst staff remain on fixed-term contracts they are having to put up with high levels of uncertainty about future employment and are offered very little consultation," Thompson said. "The lack of preparation for this from the employers in the light of this data is staggering." On June 22, Andrews and about 30 other postdocs are meeting in London to form the new National Research Staff Association, Britain's first national body representing postdoctoral staff. The association is the brainchild of John Bothwell, a postdoc at the Marine Biological Association in Plymouth, England. He said contracts were a central concern for all research staff -- and that universities are implementing the new rules in a host of different ways. "From the people I've been in contact with it varies a lot," he told The Scientist. "Some have been good about setting it up but others are using every loophole in the book to get around it." He added that it may take time to determine the value of the new law. "I think it'll be one of those things that in five years we'll know how it is working," he said. Bothwell noted that the uncertainty engendered by fixed-term contracts is only one way in which postdocs lack control over their careers - but his aim is to create more than just a lobbying body. He said he hopes the new association will help expand postdocs' responsibilities, and provide them with new opportunities within science. "Postdoc jobs should be teaching you how to be a PI [primary investigator]," he said. "But they don't. There's very little responsibility, we don't get a chance to organize a lab or supervise research students," he added. "Basically, we think UK science has missed a trick in not giving us more to do. We want to advance science as well as our careers." Stephen Pincock Links within this article Department of Trade and Industry: Fixed term work--A guide to the regulations S. Pincock, "Life on the upswing for UK postdocs," The Scientist, March 2006. University of Dundee: School of Life Sciences Postdoc Association Association of University Teachers John Bothwell

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