Rethinking UK Research Funding, Part II: The Vengeance

Time for another long blog post summarising yesterday’s Rethinking UK Research Funding conference.  After the first session we had another set of speakers covering a range of topics, including a representative from UCU and our perennial nemesis, UCEA (Universities and Colleges Employers Association).  As you might expect there were some interesting divergent viewpoints.

Dr Ruth Gilligan — Athena SWAN Manager, Equality Challenge Unit

Ruth began her talk by talking us through the basics of the Athena SWAN charter, which is about creating a commitment to gender equality across higher education institutions.  She laid out some core principles for institutions to follow:

  • Recognise the talents of all
  • Advance gender equality
  • Recognise disciplinary differences
  • Tackle the gender pay gap
  • Remove obstacles to sustainable careers
  • Address short-term contract issues
  • Tackle discrimination against trans-gender people
  • Demonstrate commitment at senior levels in the institution
  • Make necessary structural and cultural changes
  • Consider intersectionality

Institutions are expected to collect data on all these elements and critically analyse the results.  They should work to identify reasons why certain groups may be excluded or underrepresented in the institution, develop action plans to address these reasons, and show progress over time.

Of particular interest here is the requirement to address short-term contracts.  I have seen evidence in the past that short-term contracts affect female academics more severely than males, and so when addressing gender equality concerns short-term contracts become a crucial ingredient.  Funding organisations have a crucial role to play here — the focus on predominantly short-term funding initiatives pushes the number of short-term contract staff higher and higher, so moving away from this short-termism at the funding council level could have a strong impact.

Ruth also showed some current figures, which showed the number of institutions and departments which have been awarded Athena SWAN Bronze, Silver, or Gold awards.  Quite a few institutions and departments have Bronze awards, far fewer have Silver, and only seven departments in the whole of the UK have reached Gold level — and no institutions at all.  So there’s still quite a lot of work to be done here.

I couldn’t help but think during this talk that later in the session we would have a representative from UCEA.  This is an organisation that has decided to try to force academics to accept a 1% pay rise yet again, on the back of a threat to refuse to work with us on addressing the significant gender pay gap in the sector unless we accept the offer without protest.

Given that UCEA represents all the employers, then if they refuse to work with us on the pay gap, the employers would all be dismissing a core principle of the charter as Ruth had outlined.  So surely, if that were to happen, the awards granted across the sector to date should be removed, and any funding linked to those awards rescinded?

Iain Cameron — Head of Research Careers and Diversity, Research Councils UK

Iain started off with a chart listing ‘pros and cons’ for short-term funding programmes.  I could summarise by saying the ‘pros’ column consisted of points that benefit employers and the research councils — ‘agility’ in the sense of being able to respond to research demands, flexibility for the employers, etc.  The ‘cons’ raised points that we’re all quite familiar with by now — career uncertainty, lack of career development and training time, research time lost to job searches for short-term researchers, and the general unreliability of redeployment arrangements in universities.

Iain acknowledged that the sector is packed to the gills with short-term workers with uncertain futures (21,000 PhDs granted each year, 45,000 post-docs around at any given time).  He laid out the RCUK vision for post-docs which he feels would improve their lot:

  • An overarching aim to support excellent researchers
  • Career support from beginning to end of a contract
  • Mentoring from senior colleagues
  • Networks to enable sharing of experiences
  • Broadening the definition of ECRs to ensure this assistance is widely available
  • Encouraging development of independence in research
  • Pushing institutions to treat post-docs as ‘proper employees’

Note that none of these points really involves RCUK changing anything about their funding structures or tying their funding to progress on short-term contracts from institutions or similar.  In my view these actions are far from sufficient and do not demonstrate a real commitment to addressing the problem.

He moved on then to a discussion of the post-doc academic fellowships available at some universities, in this case Leeds and Birmingham.  These fellowships are generally for five years and include substantial mentoring and career support as well as protected research time.  He called them ‘tenure-track equivalent’, which is of course not true, as tenure is a real thing with a legal framework behind it which does not exist in the UK at all (thanks, Thatcher).  Personally I’d be more excited about these fellowships if they were commonplace, rather than being offered at only two of the many dozens of HE institutions in the country.

After this Iain discussed the PhD situation for a little while, noting that PhDs are being granted to many more people now than even a few years ago, and that there is concern about where these people can make use of these skills when academic jobs are so incredibly scarce and competitive.  He pointed out some figures from businesses, who seem moderately enthused about hiring PhD grads, who they say provide innovative perspectives and valuable skills.  I don’t doubt that this is true, but unfortunately the great majority of PhD students take on the challenge because they want an academic job, not so they can become a juicier prospect in the business world.

In general my personal reaction — as you’ve probably gathered — is that this presentation seemed to acknowledge the problems presented by short-term funding regimes and their effect on the research career structure, but offered very little in the way of solutions on the RCUK side of things.

Michael MacNeil, National Head of Bargaining and Negotiations, University and College Union

Next up is Michael MacNeil, long-time high-level UCU official and a nice chap who I’ve spoken to a number of times about fixed-term contracts in UK academia, so I was pleased to see him focusing on that topic during this talk.  He set out to discuss the HE sector record in supporting sustainable research careers (spoiler alert: it’s not good), and to lay out the case for moving away from fixed-term contracts in universities and for institutions to take responsibility for their researchers.

He noted that higher education is the third worst sector in the UK for insecure employment, coming in just below the hospitality industry and retail.  Two-thirds of the sector’s entire research base is employed on fixed-term contracts, and out of those 57% are for two years or less, and 29% are for one year or less.  While the Fixed-Term Contract Regulations 2002 do provide some protection for fixed-term workers, in practice they’ve made very little difference, as it remains straightforward for employers to deny permanency to fixed-term employees (I can vouch for this fact personally).

Michael then outlined why this issue matters, and why it creates enormous waste and inefficiency in the sector:

  • The human cost in stress and ill health, which also affects productivity
  • Unfairness, particularly towards women and minorities who are disproportionately affected by these trends
  • Great deal of time wasted as fixed-term researchers need to spend time searching for jobs or begging for a contract extension
  • Time and funds wasted on providing training for a constant influx of new researchers rather than retaining talented people within the institution

He also described a few possible actions that could be taken by funding councils and employers to reduce the wastage here:

  • RCUK could fund longer grants to reduce short-termist thinking
  • Tie the disbursement of funds to institutions providing ‘bridging funds’ to carry researchers between projects
  • Institutions themselves can move to open-ended contracts
  • Redeployment procedures exist at many institutions but are notoriously ineffective — fix them!

He noted as well, as Elizabeth Bohm said in the previous session, that the sector as a whole needs to stop pointing fingers and work together in concert to address the impact of short-termism on research and researchers.  He asked for employers to:

  • Work with UCU to push for stable funding and thus stable employment
  • Abandon their efforts to undermine the employment rights of fixed-term researchers
  • Negotiate policies that mitigate insecurity and promote continuity of employment
  • Stop passing the buck — all parts of the sector need to take responsibility

The second point above relates to when UCU discovered that UCEA reached out to government in secret to push for the removal of bargaining rights for workers reaching the end of a fixed-term contract, effectively making it far easier to make fixed-term researchers redundant.  They did this without discussing the issue with UCU, and at the same time as they were receiving Freedom of Information requests from UCU asking for details on their fixed-term workforce.

Personally speaking, the ‘stop passing the buck’ comment applies to our own community as much as it does to RCUK or UCEA.  While I was heavily involved in my union branch, I saw time and time again how academics in positions of power felt perfectly capable of denying help to young researchers on fixed-term contracts who were doing good work and were asking for some security.  That indicates to me that we are also quite happy to pass the buck.  That needs to stop if we are to have our sector regain its health.

Michael alluded to this at the end of his talk, when he discussed the gap in opinion and action between senior, established academics and younger academics seeking to build a career.  Established academics often don’t really see the fixed-term contract issue as relevant to themselves, even despite the obvious impact of lost research time and productivity due to this nonsensical structure.  As Michael said we need to band together as a community and understand that this issue affects the health of our entire sector and our research productivity, and that by addressing it we all benefit.

Laurence Hopkins — Head of Research, Universities and Colleges Employers Association

Laurence’s talk got off to an auspicious start when the chair of the session introduced him as a ‘colleague’, prompting laughter from the room.  “‘Colleague’ might be a bit of a stretch!’ remarked someone in front of me, causing more chuckles.  People simmered down after a moment, leaving Laurence to get started.  He opened by saying ‘I’m from UCEA… I’d explain more about what we do, but you might start booing me’.

Laurence started by discussing the massive increase in research-only staff compared to research/teaching staff (lecturers and above).  Since 2006 there has been a 14% increase in the number of research-only staff.  Out of these researchers some 19% take home a salary above £42k, compared to research/teaching staff where 80% take home more than £42k.

From here he started talking about the situation in some other countries.  UCEA apparently undertook some work with trade unions and employers associations in HE elsewhere to compare how badly researchers are faring worldwide.  As it happens the situation in Italy looked particularly bad — researchers average 6.2 fixed-term contracts before moving on or getting a permanent job, and 10% of researchers have between 13 and 30 contracts (!).  In a survey 63% of researchers in Italy said they ‘can’t imagine their professional future’.  Salaries are also significantly lower in Italy than in the UK, similar to other continental European nations.

While it was certainly striking to see those figures, I couldn’t help but think Laurence was doing his best to distract us from exactly how poor the UK figures are.  It may be true that other places have it even worse, but that doesn’t make what we’re doing excusable.  Similarly, he noted that Finland seemed to be the one place that has avoided an explosive growth in fixed-term researchers — they’ve kept a more balanced division in HE between researchers and permanent staff.  Of course he neglected to mention that Finland has worked to introduce tenure-track pathways which carry researchers smoothly into permanent posts, which is something UCEA could do, but clearly they have no interest in taking that step.

Now we diverged slightly into a discussion around the overproduction of PhD graduates, a topic which had popped up briefly in some earlier talks.  He noted that the current oversupply is not sustainable — we’ve had a 46% increase in doctoral grads since 2006, and the majority of these grads want an academic career.  Unfortunately, as we all know, academic careers are incredibly difficult to come by — the last figures I saw showed that only 12% of PhD grads get a post-doc, and out of those less than 10% are able to obtain a permanent academic job.  Meanwhile, despite Iain’s positive words about PhD graduates’ suitability for the business world, there are very few PhD-level researchers in business in the UK, and the numbers have actually dropped recently from 2.9% to 2.6% of PhD graduates.

As the talk meandered back toward researchers, Laurence shared the recommendations made by the UCEA report:

  • Review contractual arrangements for researchers
  • Manage researcher expectations
  • Ensure balance between research duties and teaching/admin duties
  • Improve status of research staff within institutions
  • Establish platforms for dialogue about research careers

Again these recommendations are profoundly disappointing.  None of these require any substantive action from UCEA itself — they’re just ‘reviewing’ or ‘improving’, no new solutions are being presented, no changes to the current arrangements are suggested.  I also suspect that ‘managing researcher expectations’ basically boils down to warning researchers ‘Hey, you know the conditions of your job will be terrible, right?  Better prepare yourself for that!’  Again one can’t look at these recommendations and believe that UCEA has any interest in actually addressing short-term contracts beyond a few token gestures.

Finally, Laurence finished up by asking whether our sector wants research-only careers that are distinct from academic careers.  Given that this would officially split fixed-term researchers into an exploited underclass with no hope of real advancement or prestige, I’d like to offer a resounding ‘NO’ in response to that question.

Panel Discussion

As the morning drew to a close our speakers gathered at the front again for questions.  One that caught my attention was a gentleman in front of me who asked Ruth what sort of ‘teeth’ are embedded in the Athena SWAN awards — in other words, what actually happens when an institution violates the principles they’re supposed to uphold?  Ruth said that so far no institutions or departments have had their awards rescinded, and that institutions are asked to send progress reports and analyses and demonstrate how they’re moving forward on gender equality and related issues.

Having seen what I’ve seen while working for the union, I suspect that said institutions and departments have got their spin doctors working overtime here.  I’ve seen more than my share of actions which should surely result in the loss of an Athena SWAN award, if departments truly are supposed to act on short-term contracts and so forth.  I wonder if there should be a campaign within the union to begin reporting these incidents directly to the Equality Challenge Unit?  Perhaps that would lead to a greater actual adherence to the principles laid out in the charter if there was an actual threat of awards being rescinded due to exploitative behaviour from departments and institutions.

There was also some discussion about why post-docs are not treated like academics when it comes to grant applications (a question posed by Dr Adam Glen again, who came wearing a home-made T-shirt saying ‘Why can’t a post-doc be a PI?’ on the front and ‘Post-docs are academics!’ on the back).  There was general agreement in the audience that there’s no reason why post-docs shouldn’t be allowed to submit grant applications.  Concerns were also raised that this strange restriction persists because the research councils are so dedicated to the idea of disbursing money almost exclusively to large, established groups who are seen as ‘safe bets’, and that keeping post-docs out of the running fits this agenda.  Adam suggested that small grants which have been cut in recent years should be re-established, as they allow post-docs to develop an independent research programme and become experienced academics.

Another member of the audience proposed that the Research Council could make progress on the fight against fixed-term research contracts by actually employing the researchers themselves on open-ended contracts as a sort of talent pool.  Projects that were funded would then be given researchers from the pool with the requisite domain knowledge, who would then return to the pool at the end of the project and await their next assignment.  This idea came up a few times during the day, and while it does have some attractive elements, I do wonder whether it just serve to divide permanent academics and post-docs even further.  I’d much rather see a system put in place which facilitates a transition from post-doc to established academic, and that allows researchers to remain as part of an institution independent of grant funding.  The system he was proposing would allow institutions to freely exploit researchers while taking no responsibility whatsoever, which is not a power I’d particularly like to give UCEA at this time.


In general the day provoked some vigorous discussion, and I enjoyed hearing what people had to say on these issues.  Most of all I was pleased to see how much people were engaging with the issues facing post-docs and fixed-term researchers in general, which is a topic I was focusing on in my previous work for the union.

However, the responses from some of the speakers were sadly rather predictable.  RCUK and UCEA both seemed to pay mere lip-service to the problems raised at the conference, offering nothing more than discussion forums and mentoring arrangements rather than actual significant, structural change.

I guess these talks reinforced the scale of these problems, and how they seem to be getting worse rather than better.  As several speakers said during the day, the research community as a whole needs to start taking responsibility if we are to make any progress, rather than passing the buck and pretending we’re all powerless to stop any of this.  Funding councils are in a position of great power, where they can demand change of institutions who seek to receive funding; UCEA could stop undermining researcher’s employment rights and engage with UCU in tackling short-term contracts and gender inequalities; and academics ourselves could stand up for each other and stop just putting our heads down and pretending the post-docs are doing just fine and they should really stop whining.

Put like this it all sounds pretty dire, but in fact I felt the day provides a bit of hope.  At least we had people representing all these parts of the research community in one room talking about these issues and challenging one another to develop new ideas.  That’s a start, and something worth building on.

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