Why the Use of Fixed-Term Contracts in Research?

Written by Dr Kathy Barrett, University Lead for Research Staff Development, CRSD

According to your responses to the Careers in Research Online Survey in March 2017 92.3% of you are employed by King’s on fixed-term contracts (FTCs), with 61.4% of you holding that contract for between 1 and 3 years.  Most UK universities employ their research staff on FTCs, with an average figure across the UK of 72% employed in this way.

What are the reasons for taking this approach?  King’s policy, and also of most UK universities, is that fixed-term contracts should only be used when there are legitimate reasons for doing so.  Legitimate reasons include when the project expires after a specific term.  As research is typically funded in fixed-term periods and often the grant is not renewed, this will mean that the project will be finite.  It stands to reason then that the contract held by the person carrying out the project will also expire, leading to redundancy regardless of whether it is fixed-term or open.

FTCs do not justify, according to King’s policy, less favourable treatment in comparison to staff on open contracts, so you get the same annual leave, parental leave, sick leave and training development opportunities as your colleagues.  You also get time off towards the end to look for another job, which your colleagues on open contracts would not have.  That sounds like a perk, so what then is negative about the FTC?  If you’re applying for a loan, you might find the finite nature of your contract will detract from your credit-worthiness in the eyes of the lender.  This can be an issue if you want to get a mortgage.

After four years on a fixed-term contract you are legally entitled to be transferred to an open contract, which will give you the option of getting a mortgage.  The only problem is, if your funding runs out you will still be facing redundancy and not have time to look for that new job.

What then is the answer to this conundrum?  If the funders want to support the best research carried out by the best researchers then running the projects for a fixed term makes sense.  It follows then that making the funding open-ended is probably not the answer.  I was at the BME Early Career Researchers Conference at King’s back in April listening to a talk by Chi Onwura, Labour MP for Newcastle Central, in which she said the Labour Party wanted to abolish FTCs for researchers.  When I asked her afterwards how they are planning to do this she asked me for ideas.  Clearly this question also vexes the minds of more influential people than me.  If you have any ideas then feel free to send them to her, and also to me!

King’s guidance on FTCs can be found here.