Are you a researcher working in the UK? Are you annoyed at the lack of permanent employment, the need to work many short term contracts, poor job recognition, no support for funding applications and needless pressures for targets and metrics?!
Well be annoyed no more, because the UK government is here to save the day with ‘The Concordat‘ *music swells* … well okay, it was lunched in 2008 but I only found out about it this week so, here we are.
WTF is ‘The Concordat’?
‘The Concordat’ was the government of 2007’s answer to the growing chorus of voices complaining about the treatment of researchers. It was a lofty document that was aiming to “… increase the attractiveness and sustainability of higher education research careers in the UK”. And it was signed up to by all the major funding bodies, and the majority of UK universities.
I have to confess I was thrilled to hear about this. The constant overuse of part time contracts with little to no career path was very obvious when I was looking for a post-doc position back in 2013. And talking to other post-docs, I am clearly not alone in feeling that mentoring and career development is a very patchy affair between institutions.
I was also slightly surprised that I’d been in the university system for 6 years and only just heard about this apparently ground breaking, paradigm shifting, ‘making things different’ document. But not hearing about it is just poor marketing – the document might be solid gold.
‘The Concordat’ as written, has 7 principles which UK Universities have agreed to follow in order to archive its goal. To save you all the time of reading through this 20+ page epic, I have summarised the 7 principles below for you, with some non-mangament speak translations. I’ve also delved deep into the small print and tried to fathom the intentions behind each principle.
Principle 1: Recognition of the importance of recruiting, selecting and training researchers with the highest potential to achieve excellence in research”
Translation: Hire the researchers that we think will do the job.
Err okay, not a strong start. I’m slightly confused as to why they needed to actually write that down and not just do it. Digging into the notes on this I can see that this is more aimed at “attracting diversity” and “ensuring fairness”. Which I had naively hoped universities were striving for before 2007.
Principle 2: Researchers are recognised and valued by their employing organisation as an essential part of the organisation’s human resources and key component of their overall strategy to development and deliver world class research”
Translation: We need to realise that hiring Researchers is good for doing Research.
Again, this seemed obvious to me but I guess they are still warming up. We’ve got 5 more principles to go and I suppose they are laying the ground work for the ones that will truly tackle the issues.
Principle 3: Researchers are equipped and supported to be adaptable and flexible in an increasingly diverse, mobile global research environment”
Translation: err get researchers to do more Yoga?
I had no idea about this one until I read the notes. Apparently, the idea is to get researchers to be more adaptable and open to a wide array of career routes. Apparently being a post-doctotal researcher is far too early to get tied down to any one focus or research area. Encouragingly there is some mention under this principle of the need for mentoring – which is the first good idea they’ve had so far.
Principle 4: The importance of researchers’ personal and career development and lifelong learning is clearly recognised and promoted at all stages of their career”
Translation: See principle 3 but worded differently.
The notes just talk more about mentoring and exactly the same things as talked about in principle 3. I am renaming Principle 4 the ‘Filler’ principle .
Principle 5: Individual researchers share the responsibility for the need to proactively engage in their own personal and career development and lifelong learning”
Translation: If none of the previous principles don’t magically fix things for you it’s your fault.
Now my translation might seem harsh but basically that is what they are saying. Which again seems obvious but fair – no one would argue that it is the job of any University to improve the career of someone who doesn’t want it improved. Never let it be said that Universities would improve someone’s life against their will.
Principle 6: Diversity and equality must be promoted in all aspects of recruitment and career management of researchers”
Translation: Principle 1 was like 5 principles ago and we felt it was worth bringing up again.
Err… this is just principle 1 – again. Seriously, the extra notes talk about exactly the same things. Was there an offer on principles? Did they want to make sure they were over the trolley limit?
Principle 7: The sector and all stakeholders will undertake regular and collective review of their progress in strengthening the attractiveness and sustainability of research careers in the UK”
Translation: Occasionally we might check to see if any of this makes the slightest bit of difference.
Checking that the the thing you’re wanting to do is actually working. Another genius idea from The Concordat that will truly be the linch pin holding all this together. Besides, tracking how well the policy is doing is easy – how could they possibly mess that up?!
In 2012 they released a bit of data on the current progress of the ‘The Concordat’. They recorded responses in 2009 and 2012 to a long questionnaire filled in by around 50,000 researchers from ~50 institutions (only 27 of those are in both survey sets).
The results are mixed, showing a drop in short term contracts (82% to 77%) but also (and very worryingly) a large drop in answer to the question “Agree that HEI treats staff fairly with respect to gender, age and ethnicity” which dropped 10%!
But these results are hard to believe. Between 2009 and 2012 half the Universities in the survey changed. This data could simply reflect that a different selection of Universities thought differently. It’s strange that with 27 Universities in both datasets they didn’t look at those results separately as they are the only ones that could have said to have been tracked. I’m always slightly suspicious of any organisations that chooses not to do the one sensible bit of analysis that everyone wants to see.
It may not have come across but as I slowly read down the long lists of principles, I got madder and madder. ‘The Concordat’ is at best a document setting out what everyone already knows / is already compelled to do by law, and at worst is an exercise in feeling better about not actually changing anything.
There are good parts. The mentoring in particular is certainly an area where there needs to be more support. But agreeing with things is not hard in this document. Lots of it has been written almost with the express reason of not being in anyway controversial. It’s a bland list of very well agreed ideas none of which are likely to change the world. Which is the problem. We don’t need yet another list of nice things, we need a list of ways to fix the problems that are bold and possible controversial.
Proudly stating “I will do this list of obviously sensible things” might make Universities feel better but it does bugger all to actually help researchers.