News - February 27, 2014

From contract to contract

Rob Ramaker

Universities are opposing a law which sets limits to contract employment. The people most affected by the use of temporary contracts are postdocs. ‘You notice that people will do anything to stay in academia.’

Researchers are increasingly treated like disposable goods, wrote legal expert Hendrik Gommer in the Dutch newspaper NRC Handelsblad last July. They hop from one temporary contract to the next, sometimes even going through agencies. He sees this insecurity as a bad business, which is causing scientists to favour experiments that are sure to deliver results over more innovative research. It also makes it easier to put pressure on them when clients do not get the results they wanted. The government is now working on a law which will restrict the scope for contract work, but the universities hope to be granted special status.

In Wageningen as elsewhere, a large number of academic staff are on temporary contracts. All PhD students work, by definition, on projects of limited duration. Postdocs are not represented in the statistics as a distinct group, but in the job categories they occupy 70 and 98 percent of the employers are on temporary contracts. Even higher up the scale, a permanent post is not guaranteed. Talented assistant professors are on the tenure track career trajectory. They know exactly how much money they need to bring in, and how often they should publish, in order to climb another rung on the academic ladder. If they do not achieve these targets, it is goodbye. Forty percent of those on the lowest assistant professor scale are on permanent contracts. One rung higher up, this goes up to 85 percent. Only after six years do they become associate professors, and after that full professors. Of these two groups, 95 percent have permanent posts.

Piece work
It is a logical choice for Wageningen UR to work with temporary contracts. Most researchers work on a task basis and can never be sure there will still be funding and work for them in a few years’ time. What is more, the university and DLO are getting less and less direct funding from the government. Increasingly, financing has to be obtained from companies or financiers per assignment or grant. The consequences of this affect the more senior postdocs especially. In the first few years after getting their PhDs they work on a series of temporary projects. ‘Working on these kinds of temporary contracts is hard going,’ says Mireille van Damme, a postdoc at Phytopathology, ‘because you are always under time pressure’. Postdocs must continually bring on new grants, try to round off projects and sometimes even deal with a move.

It is better to say: this is the end of the line; there is no permanent post

Van Damme herself worked in Norwich, California, after doing her PhD in Utrecht. ‘Luckily I quickly feel at home somewhere new,’ she says, ‘but now it is getting more difficult because I have to consider my three children.’ Nor is it easy to get a mortgage.

Officially, postdocs such as Van Damme can only be on temporary contracts for six years. After that they are either supposed to leave or to be offered a permanent post. This arrangement is intended to prevent postdocs being kept up in the air for ever on temporary contracts. For a group leader who does not have a permanent post available but does want to hold on to a postdoc, there are some loopholes in the law, however. Researchers can be ‘appointed’ at another university, for example, but carry on with the same work in Wageningen. Several researchers confirm, on condition they remain anonymous, that this practice occurs ‘regularly’. A different approach is sometimes taken with research assistants. After completing three temporary contracts, they stay at home for a couple of months before getting their old job back again. The university admits that these practices have gone on, but says they have been curtailed. We deplore that sort of phony system, says Marleen de Vries, legal advisor at Human Resources Management (HRM). ‘You don’t help anyone that way. It is better to say: this is the end of the line; there is no permanent post, so go and look for something else.’ HRM is not alone in rejecting phony systems. The employees council also wants an end to them, says council member Gijs van Kruistum. ‘There needs to be clarity for staff and a limit to temporary contracts.’

The lower house of the Dutch parliament passed the new law on Work and Security this month, thus introducing limits to contract employment. At the same time, the law makes it easier to dismiss people who are on permanent contracts. Companies too often use contract employment as a source of cheap labour that can be taken on with little risk. According to the government, temporary contracts should constitute a step-up to a permanent post. A broader objective of the law is to reduce the relatively big inequality between contract workers and people in permanent posts. The Dutch Association of Universities (VSNU) sees this law as a threat to science. Universities will not be allowed to keep people on temporary contracts for longer than four years. For tenure track this means that the decision will have to be made about whether someone gets a permanent post after only four years. ‘You have to wonder to what extent someone can show in just four years whether they have the potential to become a full professor?’ says De Vries of HRM. It would also mean that PhD students whose projects run into extensions would have to be given permanent contracts straightaway. Although it will only become clear in 2017 whether the new law is going to apply to most universities (for DLO it is in force from July 2015), the VSNU hopes for special status.

It seems unlikely that the law will improve the prospects of postdocs, because they face a far more fundamental problem: there are far too many of them for them all to be able to continue in academia. According to the Rathenau Institute, a thinktank which focuses on science and technology, only one in three postdocs will be able to gain a permanent academic post. The rest will go into business and a few will work on short-term contracts for the rest of their days. In spite of these prospects, Mireille van Damme says her colleagues will fight to the last to stay in academia. ‘You notice that people will do anything.’ They will compete to the last for grants and only when all the options are exhausted do they look at other possible career paths. Van Damme herself is busy proving her calibre, and has three years to go. Then she hopes there will be a permanent post for her somewhere. It is either that or more uncertainty

Illustration: Henk van Ruitenbeek