Will Contingency Save the World?

Contingent careers are the foundation of research and the highest teaching that is based on it, the walls are applying for funding and the roof is feeling insecure about the future. A better future for our society is being built on increasing skill levels and new innovations, one fixed-term contract at a time.

Almsost 70% of teaching and research personnel work on fixed-term contracts, and it is quite difficult to find a particularly valid reason for this. Sometimes people say that fixed-term contracts are good for regeneration and mobility, but could we not achieve something through a long-term focus too? Our community is, by all measures, hyper-focused on regeneration; students also bring with them fresh thinking, new questions and novel answers every year.

At times, I encounter the idea that competing for short-term contracts keeps people productive and that people are at their best when they are on their toes – or could it be that without constant worry, time could be spent on the real issues, on research and education?

According to some views, the danger in permanent employment contracts and continuity is that stability contains a significant financial risk. However, it may be that if a position has been found for a top researcher for 15 years, making the position permanent does not lead to bankruptcy. Universities are a part of normal working life, so following the rules of working life should not be a particularly disastrous idea.

The member survey conducted by The Finnish Union of University Researchers and Teachers (FUURT) shows clearly that fixed-term contracts and their associated factors are the most significant causes of harmful work-related stress. As many as 61% of the respondents saw contingent employment as the worst source of work stress, but it is significant that applying for funding and insecurity about the continuity of employment came straight after them.

Applying for funding is a particularly difficult equation to solve. External funding is temporary, so it is usually used to hire researchers for a fixed term, hopefully at least for the duration of the whole project. At the same time, this world of contingent employment also burdens those working in permanent contracts, when a significant part of working time goes into drafting applications instead of new inventions, ideas, innovations and developing education.

The result is that those who have been educated to be researchers have no time to do research, because they need to apply for funding for themselves or for their colleagues, and concentration is also disrupted by the pressure about the future without the next fixed-term contract on the horizon.

At the same time, the income levels of members of the university community are lower than those builders of a better world whom university teachers educate. Community spirit might not be dead after all.

FUURT has fought against contingent employment for many years by negotiating with university management and political decision-makers. We have also kept the issue a current one in the media. We have been able to help many researchers and teachers in difficult situations, but now is the time to make a big change.

FUURT’s fixed-term employment campaign comes down to the idea that if there is a need for work in the future, someone to do that work will also be needed. We want to encourage members of the university community to talk about their future. It is not weird or indelicate to ask where your own career is going or how it could be planned and directed to reach common goals.

In addition to supporting researchers and teachers, our goal is to help superiors in their demanding work, to offer advice and help related to common rules and to participate in turning universities into those much discussed best working places in Finland.

As I have toured universities, I have noticed, to my delight, that well-being at work, coping with workload and good management were central themes in many cities. When fixed-term contracts are ultimately the biggest single source of work-related stress, I am hopeful that this problem is something that people now want to start unpacking — together.

Maija S. Peltola

Translation Elina Siltanen

Acatiimi 5/2020

Why Not Permanent?