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CRS Forum February 5th 2003: Meeting with the Vice Chancellor

This one and a half hour meeting was attended by almost 30 staff, most of them Contract Research Staff (CRS).  During the course of the meeting CRS put a series of questions to the Vice Chancellor, clustered around the nine topics listed below. 

It must be noted that the VC’s responses (key points noted below) were largely based on his personal views and his aspirations to end the wide-scale use of fixed-term contracts for researchers at the University of Warwick and they do not represent Warwick University policy.  However, the VC’s views in conjunction with the views of other colleagues are currently being discussed by a University Working Party that is planning to develop and pilot a fair and transparent mechanism by which a proportion of fixed term researchers may be transferred to indefinite contracts.  Significant developments in relation to this project are expected in the next six months.

A summary of the current legislative position in relation to the fixed term employment of research staff is available at (URL).

1.  The VC’s vision for a possible research career structure:

There would be three types of researcher.  All researchers would be clear, at the start of their contract, about which category they belonged to:

  1. Postdoctoral Fellow  - a ‘true’ postdoc who has just finished a PhD and is at Warwick for the learning experience and does not explicitly wish to follow a career here.
  2. The researcher appointed for a contract with an acknowledged finite life.
  3. Research staff who intend to make a research career in this university – ie career employees – for whom the University make a commitment by providing them with an indefinite contracts.  Redundancy would apply to those in this category if suitable alternative work could not be found when funding dries up.

2.  The VC’s view on attracting, recruiting and retaining CRS and on managing the transition from temporary to permanent appointments

  • The best staff on fixed term contracts should not be disadvantaged when competing for long term positions.
  • With type (i) researchers the University should concentrate on preparing them to develop careers elsewhere.
  • The University should not be giving all CRS permanent positions.  If the true (Type i) postdoc is separated from the other types, employing all contract research staff in permanent positions might work.  What is needed is flexibility of interpretation.

3.  Current plans to develop the University infrastructure to support increased research activity

  • Physical growth of the University is continuing, bringing existing infrastructure up to date.  Everyone needs a reasonable office space.
  • £12-18M Government funding is available (SRIF) to develop physical support (renovation of existing infrastructure is the first priority)
  • Allocation of office space and resources to researchers cannot be done via a formula.  It needs to be decided on a case by case basis, according to status.

4.  The VC’s proposed arrangements for introducing permanent contracts and implementing the directive on fixed term employment

  • The current system and use of contract research staff cannot continue.  In future, the type of contract will be decided, where possible, at recruitment.
  • During the transitional period, as new arrangements work in, each researcher will be consulted individually and the department will make a judgement about whether or not it is possible to offer an indefinite contract. 
  • A working party will generate guidelines in consultation with the unions. This will be handled in a sympathetic way and no-one will be worse off than they are at present.
  • Some researchers may be permanent from the outset but with perhaps a longer probation period of say, 2 years, cf. 4 year probation arrangements for academics.
  • Departments will have to take responsibility for a core of permanent research staff. The research base of departments is fairly stable and they will need to decide how many they can support and identify which posts/skills are needed as permanent researchers. Permanent research staff will need training to enable them to move to other labs or projects and they will need bridging funds. Fixed term contract research staff should have equal opportunities to apply for permanent jobs if opportunities become available.

5.  The VC’s views on training and development for research

  • The University is already committed to giving a number of courses/modules not addressed directly to research staff.  These will be expanded and directed more towards research staff.
  • The University already has the Warwick Teaching Certificate for academics and researchers involved in teaching  and the Warwick Skills Certificate for students.  There is soon to be a Warwick Leadership Certificate covering personnel management, contract management and accounting.  This will be relevant to University staff undertaking a leadership role in relation to teaching, research or administration.  Gradual development will occur over the next few years.
  • The University will devise a specific training programme for type i) researchers to prepare them for work elsewhere.  There will be fewer type i) research positions than there are at present as more research positions become “permanent”.

6.  The VC’s views on integrating CRS into University life

  • Researchers should automatically feel more integrated into University life as their posts are made permanent. Long-term decisions are currently made by academic staff, but as ‘permanent’ researchers would be on a parallel career structure, mechanisms would be needed to ensure that their voices are heard.

7.  The VC’s View on the `age for wage’ issue (i.e. how can the university ensure that expertise, commitment and skills are valued when some CRS are currently employed below the appropriate wage for their age)

  • The University would hope to move away from any notion that may be about ‘age for wage’ to a more ‘wage for contribution’ approach.

8.    The VC’s proposals to improve equality of opportunity for researchers

  • The University will be looking at ethnicity/gender discrimination for research staff in the near future.
  • The attrition rate for females is too great as they progress through the structures. The University may be able to provide family-friendly policies such as parental care or eldercare such by providing affordable childcare.
  • People who have in the past been employed on an intermittent succession of very short term contracts may be able to become employees of a faculty or work on a freelance basis – or given annual hours contracts.