Does the new researcher concordat have teeth?

Vitae has a “refreshed” concordat for researchers following a sector consultation. How refreshing is it? The Wellcome Trust, UK Research and Innovation, Cancer Research UK and the UK Research Staff Association are already signed up, but UCU is a bit disappointed.

The concordat arrives at a turbulent time for the sector, as Janet Metcalfe and Sarah Nalden from Vitae wrote in a Wonkhe piece in April 2018: “It’s safe to say there could never have been a more challenging time to be a researcher in HE. With significant and unpredictable policy changes, an increasing supply of doctoral graduates, and the sector’s reliance on research staff employed on fixed-term contracts, researchers are now required to constantly adapt if their research and their careers are to remain on track.” A successful concordat would need to respond to this challenging, turbulent time.

Compare the concordats

But first, how does this version compare with the concordats of 1996 and 2008? To start with, the name change is an indication of a policy shift: the 1996 edition was called “A concordat to provide a framework for the career management of contract research staff in universities and colleges’, which became the snappier “Concordat to support the career development of researchers”. The name suggests a shift from a top-down approach to a more mutual relationship. The 1996 concordat was a bit more bleakly framed:

“An established career in academia […] is realistic for only a minority. These limited opportunities and the insecurity arising from a succession of fixed-term contracts create tensions”.

The 1996 concordat notes that “productivity” and talented staff have been lost due to under-investment in career development, and it has a more limited understanding of equality and diversity – it solely focuses on better conditions for women. Notably, provision of maternity pay is described as an “allowable” use of grants (thank you, beneficent university, for permitting me to have children).

In comparison, the 2008 concordat’s understanding of diversity encompasses gender, ethnicity, disability and age – it also mentions postgraduate researchers and their contribution to the sector. There’s a move from bleak pragmatism (“realistic for a minority”) to acceptance:

“It is recognised that positions of permanent employment are limited […] it is imperative that researcher positions […] are attractive in themselves”.

The 2008 concordat gives employees both more agency and more responsibility – see this slightly defensive line: “researchers should recognise that the primary responsibility for managing and pursuing their career is theirs.” Researchers are also expected to be “empowered” by having a “realistic” understanding of their career direction and options. Although taking ownership of your career sounds sensible, and more positive than dealing with “limited opportunities”, empowerment might be a stretch.

Pushing for change 

If the 2008 report overcorrected and expected researchers to be empowered by the job market, 2019 aims for a more collaborative balance. The new concordat sets out the separate but interlinked responsibilities of funders, research institutions and researchers, and outlines their shared responsibility for systemic sector change – for example, in relation to fixed-term contracts and “enforced mobility” – which presumably means needing to move around to get jobs. It’s also less fixated on the need for researchers to be endlessly flexible, and pays more attention to the research environment, which it notes is “diverse, mobile and global” but needs to be “healthy and supportive” if researchers are to thrive.

This years’ concordat is generally more outward-facing – and notes the sector’s contribution to the UK’s broader industrial and economic strategies. Where the 2008 edition was defensive about the lack of academic jobs and the need for researchers to step up and take responsibility for their careers, the 2019 concordat talks enthusiastically about “well-rounded and multi-skilled researchers who can traverse the interface of academia and business”.

In 2008, employers were reminded to value fixed-term and permanent staff equally and only use fixed-term contracts where they could be justified, while in 2019 we go a bit further, with talk about the impact of insecure employment on a researcher’s health. Again, there’s a recommendation to restrict the use of fixed-term contracts, and use more open-ended contracts, or more effectively redeploy staff within institutions. The 2008 concordat doesn’t mention mental health, but the 2019 report encourages institutions and funders to promote good mental health through tackling workload problems, discrimination and bullying, as well as through acknowledging stress associated with job insecurity and “enforced mobility”.

Does it go far enough?

There are a few odd notes in the 2019 report, though. In the section on environment and culture, employer and employee responsibilities are laid side by side: employers are urged to develop a healthy work environment, and employees are encouraged to take positive steps to maintain their wellbeing and mental health; employers are asked to develop policies to improve work environments, and researchers are asked to contribute to policy. Laying these responsibilities side by side is helpfully collaborative in spirit but it does fail to highlight a still-present power imbalance that was more starkly visible in the 1996 concordat.

The concordat’s discussion of professional development also (understandably) condenses a complex area for researchers into a number of directives. Researchers are urged to “explore and prepare for a range of employment options across different sectors” through making use of training, secondments and mentors, for example.

While entirely reasonable (if more time-consuming for fixed-term staff than acknowledged), this does ignore an obvious tension. How do you prepare for other careers when simply preparing for an academic job in a competitive and saturated market is really time-consuming? More crucially, how do you prepare for lots of different careers if you only want one? Perhaps researchers shouldn’t only want an academic job, but that’s a big, painful problem that gets minimised here – in an otherwise quite sensitive document.

This also leads me to wonder why postgraduate researchers are, again, only name-checked. Postgraduate students mostly aren’t research employees, but changing how researchers feel about academic careers surely needs to start during a PhD, and needs to happen in collaboration with funding bodies, academics and institutions.

UCU didn’t sign the 2008 concordat on the basis that it didn’t provide firm enough job security recommendations – they described it as “lacking teeth” in the recent consultation. This time round the union describes the revised concordat as an “improvement” but notes disappointment that their member-backed proposal to allow twenty per cent of a researcher’s time for professional development wasn’t included. Instead the concordat recommends ten days pro rata, per year.

2 responses to “Does the new researcher concordat have teeth?

  1. I agree that informing doctoral students about both the limited likelihood of an academic career and the opportunities should start during the doctoral programmes. It is sad that the article sees everything but an academic career as a regrettable outcome. So ridiculous, both for the researchers and for society at large

  2. Hi George, I’m sorry you took that from my piece – I don’t feel that way at all. I was intending to suggest that the concordat doesn’t leave much space for people who do feel that way – and lots of PhD students do, which can be painful and difficult for them if they struggle to get an academic job. I think we should be valuing all kinds of careers post-PhD.

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