Why don’t universities value senior research-only staff?

The only way to get a permanent contract seems to be to take a teaching position. But that isn’t where my skills or interests lie, says Vanessa Baxter

September 20, 2023
Montage: woman with umbrella stands on stepping stone, surrounded by clocks floating in water
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The issue of precarity is often discussed in relation to early-career researchers. But I expected that an experienced researcher like me, with 35 years of experience in the private and public sectors, would be offered a better deal. I was wrong.

I moved into academia five years ago. I had been a market research manager for a FTSE-100 company before starting a family and stepping down several levels to work part time for a large county council. As local government budgets got squeezed, less value was placed on staff’s expertise and more on their cost, resulting in my redundancy after I refused to accept a pay cut.

People like me offer universities a considerable pool of talent and diverse experience, which you might think they would value highly. After all, they spend a huge amount of time and resources in writing their Research Excellence Framework submissions to try to improve their research rankings. Yet, while they want “world-leading” research, they seem to have moved the bar even lower than local authorities in terms of valuing the people who dedicate their whole working lives to producing that excellence.

For instance, my previous employer, the University of Essex, employs 165 research-only staff, according to a freedom of information request I submitted. But just 32 – 19 per cent – of them have permanent contracts, with almost all of these working within one research institute. The remaining 81 per cent are all employed on fixed-term contracts.

Nor is Essex remotely atypical, as the job vacancy sites for multiple universities prove. Research-only staff like me are usually recruited on a fixed-term research grant or project that could last for as long as three years or as little as six months. Quite apart from the lack of job security or career development offered by short-term contracts, such precarity is an issue for the completion of research projects and grants since researchers need to look for another job before the end of their fixed-term contracts (they have rents or mortgages to pay, after all). Analysis and reporting are often left undone, obliging the lead researcher to find an alternative resource or finish the project themselves.

My experience might be slightly unusual, but I suspect it’s not unique. My role at Essex was to undertake research and evaluations in health and social care that were commissioned and funded by external organisations, such as NHS trusts, local authorities and charities. I was very successful in this role, with multiple commendations, and the value of the projects commissioned covered my salary and provided more than 20 other academics with involvement in research projects and additional income.

My contract was extended nine times in four years, with a business case required for each extension based on the value of the projects awarded. After those four years, I had a legal right to be offered my role on a permanent basis. However, the university rejected my school’s business case, stating that it didn’t employ permanent staff within academic departments (as opposed to institutes) that purely undertake research. It only employs staff who teach and do some research.

My role was then terminated, to the incredulity of the multiple professors and senior lecturers with whom I’d been working and despite the growing number of requests for projects that I could have undertaken. My only option for a permanent job was to apply for a teaching role that allowed some time for research.

However, teaching is a very different role and set of job requirements and not all researchers either want to teach or are suited to it. If you are a career researcher, why would you want to abandon your research training and learn how to direct a class, mark work and provide pastoral support to students? I did not.

As a postscript, I’ve been in contact with another university that, after understanding my role and experience, can see the value of the work I’ve been doing – so much so that it has created a similar post to focus on externally funded research and evaluation. But it is only able to offer me a fixed-term contract, with the possibility of extension if the role proves successful.

Vanessa Baxter is a senior researcher in public policy.

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Reader's comments (9)

Us lose money on R because R grants/contracts rarely include adequate overhead recovery. The gaining of such external R funding is also a fickle and uncertain process. Hence they are reluctant to take on permanent R staff. Simple!
The flip side is having such research staff means that academics then need to write grants that are suited to the skillset of the existing research staff n order to maintain their funding, rather than the research that the PI wants/needs to do. A case of the tail wagging the dog. The nature of research is that at some point topics pass their best-before-date and t that point all concerned have to move on. Encouraging strong researchers on T&R means that they can contribute to the success and stability of their department through multiple streams, and become PIs for their own research activity. Researchers who do not wish to teach do have the option of seeking research roles outside of universities.
I think this is a very narrow consideration of the value that research adds to a university. It is however an unfortunately one that senior administrators commonly adopt. Bear in mind that the credibility of a university, that enables it to attracts a significant volume of fee pay students (including international ones), essential flows from its research excellence. Thus the output of R only staff contribute to income derived from T only activities. Of course, senior University administrators would have you believe that T income supplements the deficit activity of R!
The sad fact is no body values experience and universities are chronically under funded. The cap on tuition fees for going on 10 years is crippling universities that are not independently wealthy (Oxbridge etc). If you look back 20 years research intensive universities had SOs and SSOs in hard science departments. These positions provided career progression for researchers that could not or would not move into lecturing roles. Now what happens is experienced post docs eventually leave academia because funding bodies won't employ them as the salaries are higher than a newly minted PhD (no value for experience). This creates a knock on effect as the PhD students realise there is no serious career path because the chances of becoming a PI are slim and the salaries don't justify the stress.. So in my experience most PhD students leave academia immediately. If the precarity situation is not resolved there won't be any post docs in academia in 10 years time.
I've not render come across an SO or SSO employed of a permanent contract in British University department (I've known plenty at university attached research institutes mind). And the problem for postdocs wanting to stay long term is worse than cost. I regularly cost postdocs in frants towards the top of the postdoc scale, withiyt complaint from funders. But some PIs want to hire postdocs who are ambitious and driven, who have the motivation to climb, and do whatever it takes to get there, because these people are much easier to exploit. They will work the long hours and weekends. They will finish projects unrelated to their job for an authorship outside work hours. To some PIs, a postdocs that has not move up to a PI position after 2-3 contracts has proved themselves either insufficiently, motivated, or insufficiently talented.
Yes it is unfortunately the truth ( as per David Palfreymans comment above) that research in universities is entirely a loss making activity. I sympathise with the author but she also basically explains the problem in her own article; she was employed on a series of contracts dependent on short term external funding. To be made permanent would have required the university to take on the risk of hiring her on a permanent basis when there was no certain source of future associated income to pay for her post. The university decided ( rightly or wrongly ) that it was not worth the risk. The author sounds skilled and capable, including capable of raising contracts. She could consider joining the ( swelling) ranks of self employed expert consultants and independent researchers. She would be taking the risk on herself of course but for truly experienced people this can be a viable alternative and also can turn out to be more rewarding than being on the internal university treadmill. Often considerably better paid as well... certainly a viable option for someone with expertise in public policy, who could operate with low overheads. Less viable for eg a lab based researcher.
We do have a very small number of research only full professors. These people were brought in at an already senior level (reader or senior research fellow - equivalent to senior lecturer or associate professor) on there own funding they had personally secured. Permanence only came after they had brought in several 10s of millions in research funding.
As a fully grant-funded research professor I understand the hardships, but this is my chosen career. What does irk me, however, are the people who get promoted to a tenured position - by hook or by crook - then "take their foot off the gas" knowing that they have a job for life. Why can't the same rules be applied to all senior staff?
Thanks - an important article which points to the extent to which UK universities do not value their own staff or their expertise. The other side to the coin is that permanent teaching roles (which are only as 'permanent' as the next student recruitment cycle) increasingly offer little time for research apart from short term externally funded projects, and staff with decades of teaching experience are little valued either. Research in UK universities is now largely an activity (one of many) carried out for free by staff in their spare time, for which their employers claim credit.