Elite universities less attractive due to precarity, says v-c

Short-term contracts are leading researchers to chase more secure roles in less heralded universities, says Cardiff Met vice-chancellor

November 26, 2021
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Insecure working conditions in research-intensive universities are leading many researchers to consider whether they would be better off in more teaching-focused institutions, a vice-chancellor has claimed.

Speaking on a panel of university leaders at Times Higher Education’s THE Campus Live event, Cardiff Metropolitan University vice-chancellor Cara Aitchison said the desire to work at prestigious universities was, in some cases, waning because of their extensive use of rolling short-term contracts.

“The average salary is higher at my university than most Russell Group universities,” explained Professor Aitchison, who said the “old patterns” in which academics wanted to work at research-intensive institutions “did not hold any longer” given the precarious contracts routinely used there.

“We have a better set of conditions than a certain type of institution,” said Professor Aitchison, who predicted that UK universities would face many more extended rounds of industrial action “unless we can make a significant pay award”.

“In the next two to three years, if inflation continues as it has, we will have very significant trouble unless we can make a significant pay award, but I cannot see how we will make this significant award under the current system,” added Professor Aitchison, referring to the current higher education finance arrangements that have seen tuition fees frozen in England at £9,250 since 2017-18.

Next week, staff at 58 campuses will walk out from 1 to 3 December in the ongoing disputes over pay, pensions and working conditions. It will be the fourth round of widespread walkouts in little over three years, although just 58 of the 152 institutions polled reached the 50 per cent turnout threshold required to strike.

On research precarity, Shitij Kapur, president and principal of King’s College London, said “no one can hide from this problem”.

At his institution, a quarter of all staff were employed on time-limited research contracts, he explained, but this was not unexpected because “as a research university, that is what we do – but it is also a problem”.

Research-intensive universities were limited in their ability to offer more secure contracts because of the “systematic under-funding of research, which costs about 20 to 30 per cent more than we receive to do it”, said Professor Kapur, adding that this “did not create the stable, benign system” that would allow the appointment of more permanent staff.

“Something needs to change at a governmental level in the funding of research,” he insisted.

Researchers should also be “prepared much earlier” for alternative careers outside academia, added Professor Kapur. Only a portion of 10 PhD graduates who pursue a research career will remain in academia in the long term.

“We need to realise that we are producing way more people than we actually need in academia – but that is not a bad thing,” he said.

Researchers should also not feel awkward about pursuing non-academic careers, Professor Kapur added, “rather than always saying that is a failure that you are not getting a [academic] job, having done a postdoc”.


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Reader's comments (1)

There is a simple way of making a significant pay award to academics and that is start sacking many of the overpaid excess bureaucrats and useless middle managers that have cost huge sums of money ! Most of what comes top down from managers is meaningless mumbo jumbo and they spend huge sums and resources doing sill little strategy documents. The paperwork and silly committees is out of control. The latest idiocy is decolonization of the curricula.