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Human Resources

‘Challenging fixed-term and casual contracts’: blog by Sheila Gupta (24 November 2021)

Sheila Gupta, Vice-Principal (People, Culture and Inclusion), writes to share improvements in the use of fixed-term and casual contracts at Queen Mary, as demonstrated in our 2021/22 Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA) Staff Statutory Return.

At the core of our Strategy 2030 is our ambition to be the most inclusive University of our kind, anywhere. While there is more work we need to do to fully achieve our ambition across all our activities, there is much that we can already be proud of. For instance, we are already widely regarded, rightly, as the most inclusive Russell Group university – a fact reinforced today by research from the Sutton Trust and Institute for Fiscal Studies which shows Queen Mary as the best university in the country for impact on social mobility.

In addition, we have taken significant steps forward in addressing the use of fixed-term and casual contracts, the evidence for which we have seen in our Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA) Staff Statutory Return for 2020/21.

One of the aspects recorded in this staff return is the use of fixed-term contracts. Fixed-term contracts, which have the same terms and conditions as permanent contracts, can be necessary, for example to cover maternity and paternity leave. They can also offer valuable career development opportunities. Across the higher education sector, however, there is a realisation that there are too many fixed-term contracts in place, and too few people enjoying the security of a permanent role. I am very pleased to tell you that our HESA data return shows a 6.6% decrease in fixed-term contracts (FTCs) and a huge 35.4% decrease in the use of one-off or casual contracts in the year 2020/21. In addition, while the total number of these contracts reduced, the amount of work (as measured in full-time equivalence (FTE)) remained level, indicating that we were offering more work to fewer staff. We have also looked at this data by gender and, for teaching-only staff, we saw huge a reduction in the overrepresentation of women on fixed-term contracts: from 62% of women and 57% of men on FTCs in 2017/18, to 53% and 51% respectively in 2020/21.

This didn’t happen by accident. In the year 2020/21 we were in the eye of the Covid-19 storm. As a University we had to take some difficult decisions to ensure we could both weather that storm and keep a focus on our Strategy 2030 goals. As a result of the actions we took, we did not need to resort to drastic measures taken by some other universities: we did not resort to redundancies, we maintained our reward processes and we continued to recruit. Indeed, we increased resources where it was critical for delivery, with more than 900 requests for additional resource agreed during the year, including hundreds of new and replacement posts. Our enhanced recruitment monitoring through this period helped us challenge requests for short-term contracts and seek permanent or longer-term solutions where possible – leading to the improvements shown in the HESA data return described above.

Challenging the use of fixed-term and casual contracts is just one aspect of the task. I am very proud, however, of the positive impact we are collectively making, as we continue on our journey to be the most inclusive University of our kind.

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