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Select Committee report 'unhelpful' says Universities UK

Universities UK Media Release, November 20, 2002:

Universities UK today took issue with parts of a report by the Commons Science and Technology Select Committee (1), which downplays the financial problems underlying the high proportion of contract staff in some universities.

Universities UK believes the Select Committee has underestimated the progress made by universities in addressing the role and development of staff over the five-year period that the Research Careers Initiative (RCI) has been working on this. Universities have worked hard under the RCI to create tools to assist contract researchers with career management and appraisals, for example, and in setting up with the unions the Joint National Committee for Higher Education Staff (JNCHES).

The report also fails to acknowledge that there is a place for some short term contracts in higher education. Specialist staff are needed for specialist research projects. Short term contracts also have a legitimate role to play at the start of an academic’s career. They enable new researchers to gain valuable experience in different institutions and are an important method of recruiting new entrants to the profession at a time when universities are experiencing some recruitment difficulties. Current arrangements are backed by newly implemented European legislation and ensure that researchers will not be on short term contracts for more than four years.

Diana Warwick, Chief Executive of Universities UK, said: "It is easy to criticise past failings – but it is vital we also focus constructively on what universities are doing now. Universities are tackling the problems experienced by short term research staff and it would have been more helpful had the Select Committee sought to assist universities to build on the work they have done. Instead, and unhelpfully, the report largely ignores the progress made by university managers as they seek to improve working conditions for contract research staff while operating under severe financial constraints.

"These financial constraints have limited universities’ flexibility to resolve the current imbalance between contract research staff and those on open-ended contracts." The Secretary of State Charles Clarke acknowledged only days ago the severe funding difficulties facing the sector (2).

Professor Roderick Floud, President of Universities UK, added: "The Select Committee Report also undervalues the impact of the Roberts Review in persuading Government to increase salaries substantially and provide funding for training, and to oblige Funding Councils to make it clear to universities that they are expected to feature support for post-doctoral researchers in their human resource strategies.
"We are pleased that the Select Committee has endorsed the RCI view that its activities would be subsumed within the Science and Engineering Base Funders Forum. One of its important roles will be to monitor institutional responses to the new European Directive and the pressures exerted by the Funding Councils."

The Science and Technology Select Committee Report: Short Term Research Contracts in Science and Engineering (HC 1046) is published on 20 November.
Charles Clarke said in the Independent on Sunday on 17 November 2002:
"I want to acknowledge the funding deficit faced by many universities. This manifests itself in a number of ways:

Top British universities find it very hard to compete with top-level research salaries in world competitor institutions.

Capital investment in universities has fallen behind. The backlog is estimated at £5.3 billion.

Morale is therefore lower than it needs to be in many of our Universities."

November 2002

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Last updated: 22 November 2002 10:55
Created by: Rachel Tunstall

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