Inside Track | Fairer future for all – an update on reducing fixed-term contracts

Professor Nick Plant and Paul Boustead provide an update on our commitment to reduce the use of fixed-term contracts in our drive to build a fairer future for all our staff at the University.

Paul Boustead, Chief People and Culture Officer (left), and Professor Nick Plant, Deputy Vice-Chancellor: Research and Innovation (right)

Paul Boustead and Nick Plant

A commitment to reduce the use of fixed-term contracts is key to our drive to build a fairer future for all our staff at the University. 

At the heart of this is a recognition that we need to create greater employment security and stability, and career progression, for our staff community if we are to be a truly values-led institution that harnesses expertise in research and education to help shape a better future – as articulated in our strategy, ‘Universal Values, Global Change’ 

Since we last updated on this in March, the University Executive Group – our most senior leadership body – has agreed three over-arching principles, which we will be discussing with our trade unions and using as the basis for our planning: 

  • First, the standard maximum length for fixed-term contracts will normally be set at two years. We are in the process of developing our policy to underpin this and understand its application, along with any necessary exceptions. 
  • Second, to begin to convert the contracts of existing eligible staff to ongoing contracts from 31 July, with a view to completing this by the end of December 2022. 
  • Third, the work will be phased, beginning with staff who have been on fixed-term contracts the longest – more than 10 years. This seems the fairest approach and will encompass all staff groups from the outset. New staff will also be considered early on in the process. 

Future, staff, jobs, recognition, reward, diversity, recruitment

Alongside this, we will improve the arrangements we have in place to understand the skills that exist across the community, and how we can use these to deliver across different activities, which is key to providing security of employment. 

All of this will, of course, be subject to consultation and negotiation with the campus trades unions – UCU, UNISON and Unite. 

We should be upfront that not everyone who is on a fixed-term contract will move across to an ongoing contract. This is because some of the funding mechanisms for particular posts, especially in early career research roles, do not yet support this approach.  

We are particularly mindful that we need to avoid causing unintended consequences where we actually create less employment security for our early career staff, or limit their opportunities to build their careers at Leeds as they would if they worked at other universities.   

As one university, with a significant reliance on external funding to carry out our world-changing research and education, we cannot unilaterally change all of this overnight. Nor will we probably ever completely end the use of fixed- and short-term contracts. Indeed, they can have a use and benefit for all parties where work activity or a role are needed for a set period of time, for example, to support a specific project or cover for an absence. In these circumstances they can support existing team members, offer short-term employment opportunities and sometimes provide valuable work experience for our students.  

But by aiming to more than halve the percentage of fixed-term contracts we use, we can be in the vanguard of universities helping to challenge some of the practices that have stemmed from the transitory nature of higher education careers, and the nature of external funding. 

So, we are trying to find a solution to this ongoing issue that works within the current funding environment. That’s not easy, but it is essential. 

It’s essential because if we are to truly change the world for the better, whether through directly delivering research and education, or carrying out the essential roles that enable this to happen, we need to give our staff every opportunity to develop to their full potential and continue to thrive. 

And, it’s essential because we need to recognise the real human cost of the current approach across the higher education sector, where colleagues on short-term contracts can be locked into a regular cycle of uncertainty. This has a real world impact on their employment security, financial stability, and their health and wellbeing. 

We hope that this is the start of a journey to becoming a more compassionate, fairer and empathetic organisation and that, in doing this, we can be a beacon to others. 

We have already been working with a broad range of stakeholders to develop our approach so far, including our campus trades unions, and we’ll continue to do this to ensure we take account of the diverse needs of different groups. We will provide regular updates as we move through the next phases and towards roll out.

Professor Nick Plant, Deputy Vice-Chancellor: Research and Innovation 

Paul Boustead, Chief People and Culture Officer 

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