Why fixed-term?

The majority of university researchers and lecturers continue to toil away on fixed-term work contracts. Why don’t universities offer permanent positions like other employers?

Real-life examples from a university: An employee has spent 20 years with the same employer, performing the same duties, on a fixed-term contract the entire time. The contract has always been extended — that is, until one day the extension doesn’t come. One associate lecturer has taught the same subjects at the same university for several years, full time. Even still, they have been issued separate contracts for each course. Some spend every Christmas holiday unsure whether work will continue in January. That information arrives on the same day work is supposed to start, or even later in the worst case.

“It’s inconceivable how some faculties delay information about work continuation right up to the last minute. This is an unpleasant exercise of power on their part”, says lawyer Salla Viitanen from the Finnish Union of University Researchers and Teachers (FUURT), where issues regarding members’ fixed-term employment are addressed on a frequent basis.

These issues pertain to both the legality of fixed-term employment and the manner in which legal fixed-term contracts are handled. For example, if it is known a permanent employee will be absent for two years, one could reasonably assume their substitute is hired for a two-year period. However, substitutions are often cut into shorter stints, and one substitute may work under multiple contracts during a single employment period.

“Many are so used to this that they never even ask for anything better. In many other fields, this would be completely unheard of”, Viitanen notes.

70 percent are fixed-term

The large majority of academic teaching and research relies on fixed-term workers. According to statistics from the Finnish Education Employers (FEE), only 30 percent of teaching and research staff are permanent workers. In university administration, three out of four positions are permanent.

70% of all researchers and lecturers being fixed-term workers sounds like a significant number. One large group encompasses doctoral researchers, who are on fixed-term contracts for a clear reason, i.e. finishing their dissertations. Even with this group removed from the calculations, the percentage of fixed-term workers remains at approximately 60%. Generally speaking, the percentage of fixed-term workers in Finland is less than 20% on average. The difference is staggering. “It doesn’t seem very believable for the university sector to have this many more substitutions, for example, than other fields”, says Salla Viitanen.

Compared to researchers, a considerably smaller number of teachers are fixed-term workers, roughly amounting to one third. Looking at statistics, it may appear as if over 90 percent of all teachers were fixed-term workers in the late 1990s and have largely landed in permanent positions over the years. However, this is simply due to changes in statistics compilation — before the 2010 university reform, fixed-term assistants and senior assistants were grouped with teachers.

FUURT’s recent member survey also paints a picture of fragmented careers. Approximately 1,500 researchers, lecturers, and various experts responded to the survey, and nearly half of the respondents had gone through at least ten employment periods. Every eighth respondent had worked under at least eleven separate contracts at their current employer.

Criticism and understanding

In late spring and early summer, Acatiimi reached out to fixed-term workers in universities to ask about their experiences and received numerous replies via Twitter and email. The constant competition is exhausting. Applying for funding becomes harder as fixed-term work continues. Previous research is still ongoing, but you have to start looking for the next source of funding.

Longer research projects or high-quality follow-up studies become pipe dreams. “You have to figure out something quicker”, one researcher describes their work. Single courses can be taught fine on a fixed-term contract, but what if you would like to develop the teaching process or, say, build up co-operation between different scientific fields?

Despite the universities coming under criticism for their personnel management and pushing fixed-term workers around, they also received a degree of understanding from the workers. The universities cannot be blamed if their core funding is insufficient and competitive funding determines what can be done. When funds come in at certain short periods, employment periods will have to be similarly short.

One respondent noted that it also doesn’t help the research if the researcher gets a permanent position but is then shifted from project to project, based on which one happens to be funded at any given time. According to the respondent, this hurts the quality of the research.

Affects the whole work community

A professor constantly writes statements, comments on applications, offers guidance and encouragement, and applies for funding for others. The professor has long-term plans that could even become globally significant but can’t be realised, as young researchers simply turn up for short periods and almost immediately begin to apply for funding on their next projects as soon as the job starts.

Fixed-term contracts also worry those with permanent jobs. Many university people commenting on the topic to Acatiimi described how short-term work affects the whole community

Planning educational activities is difficult when you have no idea who will be on your team in a year’s time. A research project leader agonises over how research project funding is often far too small to pay for a work period of reasonable length for one researcher. Often, the funding is insufficient for hiring a project researcher for the full duration of the project. When researchers are forced to look for additional funding, they are unable to spend that time and effort on their research.

In addition, one must always consider the risk of project researchers moving away from the university to more secure jobs or landing a better position on another project. “In the academic community, applications are constantly going around. If you yourself don’t need anything, then you’re trying to make sure others can continue their work”, one researcher and project leader mentions.

Tarja Niemelä, Executive Director of the Finnish Union of University Professors, adds that fixed-term contracts can also cause issues when applying for funding. “When there’s this much more competition for external funding these days and you’re applying for project funds with the professor, the professor’s fixed-term contract has a direct effect on the process. It’s harder to apply for funding or co-operate with others when you’re on a five-year contract yourself”, Niemelä says. Only about 12 percent of university professors are on fixed-term contracts. Fixed-term contracts are more common in research facilities, and research professors are often appointed for a five-year period at a time.

Funding alone not sufficient grounds

Fixed-term contracts are an age-old dilemma. Even before the 2010 university reform, universities were obligated to re-examine fixed-term contract criteria with the help of shop stewards, and unlawful practices were corrected. Later, in the university reform, justification for the use of fixed-term workers was sought in a rather harsh manner through a government proposal, suggesting “an established practice in the field” as a valid reason for fixed-term contracts. The Parliament’s Education and Culture Committee stated that an established practice did not constitute a valid reason in accordance with the Employment Contracts Act. The Education and Culture Committee stated universities should take the legal criteria of fixed-term contracts into much more serious consideration in future, as well as significantly reduce the percentage of fixed-term workers on their staff.

In other words, the problem was already identified at the time of the university reform, but no solution has been found.

There must always be demonstrably valid grounds for a fixed-term work contract if it has been signed at the employer’s initiative. Certain work projects, seasonal work, and substitutions are examples of acceptable reasons.

However, merely identifying the work as project-oriented is not sufficient. Fixed-term funding alone is not reason enough for a fixed-term contract, as has been outlined in the Supreme Court’s preliminary ruling in 2011. Regardless, in practice it obviously affects the nature and length of work contracts.

Major differences between universities

Not every university is the same, as one respondent told Acatiimi when describing their experiences. Transferring between two universities, they found there were major differences in e.g. how substitution periods are split.

Significant differences can also be observed in the numbers of fixed-term workers at different universities. At the University of Lapland, 45 percent of teaching and research staff were fixed-term workers last year. Meanwhile, the same number for the Aalto University was over 83 percent. Several universities are seeing a slight increase in permanent positions, whereas others are experiencing the opposite.

It should be noted FEE’s figures may differ somewhat from the universities’ figures and those of Vipunen, the education administration’s reporting portal. The latest percentages of fixed-term workers in FEE’s statistics were calculated from individuals who received salaries in September 2019. The universities may also examine the percentages on an annual basis or in annual work units.

The LUT University has the second-highest portion of fixed-term workers, at 76 percent of teaching and research staff. Out of the entire staff, slightly over half are fixed-term workers. According to LUT University HR Director Pirkko Partanen, a surprisingly large portion of the university’s fixed-term workers — 57 percent — is comprised of younger researchers working on their dissertations, alongside undergraduate, graduate, and postgraduate students hired as research assistants. 18 percent of fixed-term workers are post-doc researchers. Other fixed-term workers are in research positions. Support service workers are 95% permanent, as are nearly all professors, postgraduate teachers and university lecturers.

“The four-step researcher career model affects fixed-term contracts. The university policies outline that this kind of career model is used. Otherwise, we examine the duties and determine if the position is permanent in nature. If there are no grounds for a fixed-term contract, naturally we will obey the law and hire personnel to permanent positions”, says Partanen.

The Aalto University has an even higher percentage of fixed-term workers than the LUT University. HR Director Riitta Silvennoinen states over 80 percent of their fixed-term contracts comprise doctoral researchers and post-docs, many of them foreigners.

“It’s a matter of great pride for us that so many are able to work on their dissertation full-time while employed. Our role is to develop top-line researchers, not just here in Finland but on a global level. Each and every professor knows their duty is to nurture. You can’t just take post-docs and make them work, you place them in a group conducting high-level research to learn and develop special expertise”, says Silvennoinen. According to Silvennoinen, staff has previously worked on short fixed-term contracts without future prospects, but the university has made efforts to alleviate the issue through planning.

“A certain portion of staff will complete a specific project that requires special expertise, but only about 100 of Aalto’s 4,200 annual work units consist of project work. No assistant professors are in separate, fixed-term positions, but all of them are on the professor career path. If we hire an assistant professor, we’re deciding to invest on tenure.

Career model did not make career predictable

Union of University Professors Executive Director Tarja Niemelä points out that despite universities speaking positively about the professor career path, not everyone advances along that path. The Union of University Professors is occasionally contacted by members who have not progressed on the tenure track and whose employment has ended.

According to Tarja Niemelä, the judicial administration is likely to receive a case or two this autumn with the tenure track listed as the reason for a fixed-term contract. The four-step career model for researchers and the tenure track for professors are often brought up as the explanation or justification for the large number of fixed-term workers at the relevant university. Even though progression towards permanent positions through fixed-term stints is an established convention at universities, Finnish labour law does not recognise this career model or tenure track as valid grounds for a fixed-term contract.

The four-step career model for researchers is a method for categorising university personnel but is sometimes seen as a representation of the “correct” path through an academic career. An assessment published in 2016 indicates this researcher career model has not made the academic career any more predictable. In several universities, the model has primarily served to assist in personnel management and statistics compilation and clarified titles. However, it has also created unreasonable expectations of being a tool for helping progress careers, or some sort of promise of fixed-term contracts eventually leading to tenure.

Especially on the first and second step, career progression is highly contested and uncertain. According to the assessment, the model has practically created “qualification tasks”— i.e. more and more continuing education — from the second step’s tasks, in the post-doc phase. In addition, the researcher career model as well as the tenure track method only apply to a certain portion of academic personnel. Many of those doing projects and substitution work are unable to fit their own careers into any existing template.

Employer identifies problems

Recruitment may also differ within the university. For example, the administration of the University of Eastern Finland has recently noted that the portion of fixed-term contracts varies significantly between different units.

HR Director Jouni Kekäle describes the differences as fairly significant and their fundamental causes yet to be determined. “There may be cultural differences at play here, but our analysis is still in progress. We will look at the full picture in the Leadership Group and get back to the faculties. Certainly, things can be tightened up and rules should be clarified”, Kekäle says.

At UEF, 65 percent of teaching and research personnel are on fixed-term contracts. Out of all personnel, the number is slightly less than half. The portion of fixed-term workers is slightly lower than the average of all universities, but this number has been gradually increasing since the early 2010s. According to Kekäle, complementary funding clearly has an effect on fixed-term contracts.

“If your funding is fixed-term project funding, you can’t really get a permanent job out of that. Funding by itself is not grounds for fixed-term contracts, but competitive funding facilitates jobs being fixed-term project work”, Kekälä says.

Kekäle mentions it is common for doctoral researchers at the university to occasionally pause their dissertation work, move to other project work, and then return to the dissertation. This has no effect on the portion of fixed-term workers, but causes the careers of many young researchers to appear increasingly disjointed.

Demand your rights

If you feel you have been strung along in terms of fixed-term contracts, the first step is to talk to your superior and ask for a permanent position. FUURT lawyer Salla Viitanen reckons many university employees are cautious and feel they must not demand their rights out of fear for their career ending. Viitanen wishes to alleviate such fears.

Some fixed-term contract chains are solved in the workplace with the help of a shop steward, others with union support, and a portion goes all the way to court. If you have been struggling on chained contracts, it is quite likely for the law to consider the contract of indefinite duration. Even a single contract without grounds in the contract chain is enough. In this case, the employment can be considered indefinite from this contract onwards.

“You can take issues forward. Employment has been changed to permanent, or the employee has received compensation that isn’t exactly small either”, Viitanen offers here encouragement.


Text by Terhi Hautamäki

Acatiimi 4/2020