Universities have always employed a high percentage of contract staff to undertake research, much of it from earmarked funding. But over half of the lecturing posts now offered by universities carry fixed-term contracts.
According to Colin Bryson, chair of the Association of University Teachers' fixed-term committee, the number of academic and academic-related staff in traditional universities on fixed-term contracts rose from 38 per cent to 51 per cent between 1993-94 and 1994-95.
About 98 per cent of jobs offered to academics at his university, St Andrews, during the past year have been fixed-term. The university is also making use of teaching and research fellowships, a new kind of fixed-term post whereby staff are not paid on an academic scale. Mr Bryson has one of these posts in management studies for a three-year term.
"Once you are into these contracts you are not going to escape out of the ghetto very easily," he said. "Academia is still dominated by reputation, it is a meritocracy, and if you have taken a temporary contract you are deemed to have settled for less. It is very damaging for career structures. People in my position tend to carry a heavier administrative and teaching load, they feel they have to take on extra responsibilities due to this sense of always being on probation.
"At St Andrews there is no way my job can become permanent unless I take part in an open competition." And there he finds himself in a Catch 22 situation. "When I did apply for a permanent post I was told I wasn't eligible because I was only on a temporary contract."
More women than men are in fixed-term posts. In the traditional universities 47 per cent of women holding junior lecturer posts are on temporary contracts, compared to 21 per cent of men; and 8 per cent of female senior lecturers are temporary, compared to 3 per cent of men.
Temporary staff in universities often feel very isolated, However, permanent staff also feel anxious, especially after the recent Research Assessment Exercise when departments were graded one to five (departments below three lose their research funding). RAEs mean a redistribution of funds and so universities come under pressure to close under-performing departments and to root out those who do less research.