Discussion: Short-term contracts are often an essential lifeline for the most vulnerable university researchers

There has again been a lot of discussion about shortterm contracts at Finnish universities. Everyone, including researchers and unions, blame the universities. However, sometimes this is not justified, and can be counterproductive.

As we all know, during the last decade there has been a clear profiling process in Finnish universities. Strategic areas have been defined on the university, faculty and department (osasto) levels, meaning that permanent positions (professors and lecturers) are strictly connected to these areas. If your research area does not belong to any of these ‘strategic’ areas, it is unlikely that you will get a permanent position in the near future. You will have to apply for external funding, including from Finnish scientific foundations.

However, these foundations usually invite professors and senior researchers to evaluate the submitted applications – so what are the chances that your research proposal that falls outside the strategic fields will receive support from the same professors who were responsible for the profiling? Sounds impossible. And believe me, it is. I know.

Hence, researchers working in non-strategic research areas will be ‘kicked out’ or prevented from getting employment at the department, and of course, they will have difficulties in getting internal or external funding and support. Even for extremely good-quality candidates, it is not easy. For example, senior researchers applying for research project funding from the Academy of Finland cannot include salaries for themselves, meaning that the salary has to come from other sources.

Research groups with permanently employed professors have a significant advantage because they can apply on behalf of other (even senior) members of their group who have no permanent position. In this constellation of power, in order to survive, researchers with no permanent contract are doomed to a succession of sometimes shorter, sometimes longer, contracts. If they don’t belong to a larger group run by a professor (in a strategic area), they don’t have a safety net which could provide them with some income should they have funding gaps.

It is these researchers that will suffer the most if universities are under constant criticism regarding short-term contracts. My university had been recommending for a long time that there should be no short-term contracts; however, recently the recommendation was changed to this rule: “Under the new procedure, as a rule, no new employees will be hired for terms lasting less than six months, while those lasting under one year are also on an exception-only basis.” This rule also applies to those who have previously worked for the university.

Those who criticize universities because of short-term contracts should make a clear distinction between two situations: the university using basic funding to hire people and the university signing contracts with researchers who bring or are in receipt of external funding. I claim that if such a distinction is not made, the most vulnerable (small groups without a professor, individual researchers, foreign researchers without a safety net, researchers working in currently(!) non-strategic areas) will suffer the most.

So next time you criticize Finnish universities regarding short-term contracts, please remember that you are giving them a reason (or an excuse) to discard the most vulnerable researchers. During the crisis brought on by coronavirus, we should be protecting the most vulnerable and not making their existence even more difficult by insisting on rules that are clearly unrealistic as long as university basic funding does not allow the hiring of a large number of researchers.

Short-term contracts for those who bring their own external funding are necessary for the preservation of diversity of research topics and areas.

It is very difficult to predict which research will be relevant in five years’ time. Let us learn from this by not (completely) discarding research areas and topics that have lost the profiling battle.

Igor Radun PHD,
Docent of traffic psychology

Page 48 in the printed magazine