The revised European Charter for Researchers recognises problems but offers disappointingly few new solutions

The European Council recommendation on a new framework for research careers (the wild title in its entirety to follow later) and the annexed new European Charter for Researchers received their final form and approval in December 2023. What was strange in the process was that the European Commission proposal for these documents in July 2023 was communicated much more clearly and through more channels than the actual decision in December 2023. To locate the final documents, you had to search high and low and look into every nook and cranny. And if you actually managed to find them, the end result was disappointingly bland. To help with the search, let it be known that the new European Charter for Researchers (2023) is, quite in line with the fuzzy communications of the entire process, hidden in Annex II.  

Council recommendation on a European framework to attract and retain research, innovation and entrepreneurial talents in Europe (2023) is based on what is essentially a good and quite accurate picture of the issues plaguing the attractiveness of research careers. The recognised challenges include issues with fixed-term employment, the lower salary and income development compared to other fields, inadequate or unclear career prospects, uncommon forms of employment (for example, grant work or other work outside of employment relationships) and how work outside of employment relationships or mobility between different countries and different social security systems cause interruptions or inadequacies in an individual’s social security. The Council also recognises that the uncertainties in employment and income are emphasised in the early part of research careers, during doctoral and postdoctoral research. 

Research careers are diversifying

The recommendations recognise the diversification of research careers, and the Council encourages the development of doctoral education from this perspective. As support for mobility between sectors, the recommendation’s Annex includes a list of potential titles for researchers in various professions to allow different sectors to better recognise and compare the diverse tasks and career progression of researchers. The list is not exhaustive, but it may help facilitate the monitoring of research careers and different potential tasks.  

In the spirit of the previous Charter for Researchers, researchers in all career stages are recognised as professionals. The career stages are named as follows: First Stage Researcher (R1), Recognised Researcher (R2), Established Researcher (R3), and Leading Researcher (R4).  

The recommendation also acknowledges the change and diversification of research assessment towards a more responsible research assessment which recognises the diversity of research work outputs, activities, and practices. The assessment of diverse work output should take into account both quantitative and qualitative elements in a balanced manner. 

Fixed-term employment still too common

What is disappointing is that the quota for fixed-term contracts per organisation that was specified in the draft is absent in the new Charter for Researchers. The Commission’s summer version included this as a concrete proposal, with the quota for fixed-term contracts defined as a maximum of one third of the research personnel resources of a single employer. That would have been a clear objective level and in line with the objective of FUURT, but the final version has waived this concrete objective and replaced it with conditionals:  

Employers and funders should take resolute actions to counter the phenomenon of precarity and to support job security and stability. This could, on a voluntary basis, include the establishment of a maximum threshold for the number of fixed-term contracts per organisation in the overall researchers’ human resources. Whenever permanent, long-term or highly recurrent research tasks are being fulfilled, permanent or open-ended contracts are recommended as the appropriate instrument. Researchers under fixed-term contracts should benefit from specific career development and advisory services to ensure career continuity. (European Charter for Researchers 2023, p. 21.) 

Of course, this does not mean that we, in Finland, cannot or should not take concrete action to decrease the share of fixed-term contracts among university research and teaching personnel. FUURT’s recommendations for developing academics’ career models at universities and reducing fixed-term employment relationships (2021) state that: 

FUURT feels that, in order to secure the attractiveness of research careers, universities should steer towards the aim of flipping the current 30:70 ratio for permanent and fixed-term employment relationships to the other way round. The 30 per cent share includes doctoral researchers, substitutes, and other fixed-term contracts allowed by law, and the share of fixed-term employees in universities remains at a higher level than in working life on average (20% across other sectors). 

Is tenure track the solution?

I find it questionable that the solution offered by the new Charter for Researchers is the tenure track system, in which the progression to a permanent position is subject to positive evaluation (p. 17): “A transparent, structured, inclusive and gender-equal career accession and progression system is needed to reinforce careers in academia, up to the top positions. The development of tenure-track-like systems – to be understood as defined frameworks where a fixed-term contract has the prospect of a progression to a permanent position subject to positive evaluation – could be considered for this purpose at the level of the Member States and research performing organisations.” 

If applied well, tenure track systems may clarify career views and career progression opportunities. This requires that the evaluation criteria and practices are agreed upon in a clear and co-operative manner so that all parties understand what is required to progress in the system, and expectations and requirements are both realistic and reasonable. A tenure track system cannot be allowed to mean a situation where an employee is, in practice, on a constant trial period. A tenure track system is at its worst if the evaluation and career progression criteria are not clearly agreed upon at the start of the career path, if they remain unclear, result in an unreasonable workload, or change during the process. Current tenure track systems do not, however, solve the issues and prevalence of fixed-term employment relationships. It should be possible to permanently employ research and teaching personnel without the requirement of progression to a professorial or comparable position.  

Even though the end result may be rather bland, I still encourage all members of the academic community to take a look at the revised Charter for Researchers. The Charter is aimed at all researchers, research sectors and their stakeholders, including employers, financiers and political decision-makers. Finland must promote determined practical action to improve the working conditions and career attractiveness of researchers. Together we can do more than just make wishes and suggestions! 


Miia Ijäs-Idrobo

Senior Adviser