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Secure and attractive – a research career for the future

Consultation response

SULF approves the Commission’s proposal to introduce the new position of assistant professor giving a right to consideration for permanent employment. As the Commission’s proposals are formulated, an applicant for an assistant professorship must have gained his/her doctorate before the application deadline. SULF believes it would be better to stipulate graduation as a PhD by employment start date rather than application deadline date.

Secure and attractive – a research career for the future (SOU 2016:29)
Your reg. no. U2016/01529/UH

The Swedish Association of University Teachers and Researchers (SULF) has, via its response dated 14 April 2016, been given the opportunity for stating its views on the above report.

In June 2015, the Government commissioned Ann Fust to examine how conditions could be improved for women and men who are doctoral candidates, how qualifying positions could be changed in order to create a more attractive research career, how the repeated use of fixed-term contracts in higher education could be prevented and how the mobility of students and research and teaching staff could increase.

Introduction: the importance of having players in all the positions
The report contains a number of proposals that are important to SULF members. University teachers and researchers carry out the important public work of creating new knowledge and educating future generations, both factually and by developing generic skills such as analytical and critical thinking. Many proposals in the report reflect positivity towards those who perform these difficult tasks and there is no mistaking that the Commissioner’s intentions are good.

That being said, SULF emphasises the importance of the fact that these proposals are part of a greater whole. Universities bear full responsibility for the quality of both teaching and research and, not least, for the working conditions of their employees. SULF wishes to point out that all the players in the team must be fielded. It is no good having a system that only rewards top researchers only, although they are still extremely important in the production of new knowledge. But that knowledge must also be disseminated and used. Students need good teachers who, although they do not belong to the absolute research elite, are able to understand, carry forward and develop the results that research provides. Only then can this new knowledge be made available to wider groups.

Consequently, SULF considers that the Government must state clearly that it is not sustainable for universities to introduce qualifying positions for a limited group of top scientists, and then staff the rest of their positions with a large proportion of fixed-term contract employees. Qualifying positions do not, thus, solve the entire problem of uncertain career paths.

Permanently-employed senior professors, associate professors and professors will form the foundation of the research and teaching staff and the assistant professors, according to the Commission’s proposal, will be an important addition. The holders of these new positions will mainly come from newly-graduated PhDs, postdocs, and from the wider group of scientists, not from the universities ceasing to advertise associate professorships until further notice. The team must be complete if the objectives of research and higher education are to be achieved.

In order to achieve even higher quality in university activities, all jobs must be advertised openly and transparently so that many candidates may apply. Universities today show a tendency to abuse the system by composing shoe-size ads where the job description only fits a pre-designated individual. This leads to an ambiguous system, reduces mobility and is a breach of the principles of ability and merit, which is applicable to all appointments within government operations.

• SULF approves the Commission’s proposal to introduce the new position of assistant professor giving a right to consideration for permanent employment. As the Commission’s proposals are formulated, an applicant for an assistant professorship must have gained his/her doctorate before the application deadline. SULF believes it would be better to stipulate graduation as a PhD by employment start date rather than application deadline date.
• SULF rejects the Commission’s proposal that the position should be for four to six years and asserts that four years is long enough.
• SULF approves the Commission’s proposal to reduce the application time period from seven years to five years after the gaining a doctorate.
• SULF approves the proposal to transform research employment positions to ordinance-regulated teaching positions.
• SULF approves the proposal that the Swedish Higher Education Authority should be clearly instructed to follow up the universities in their use of fixed-term contracts.
• SULF approves the proposal to remove educational grants as financing for doctoral candidates.
• SULF approves the Commission’s proposal to carry out annual statistical follow-up of mobility and considers, as does the Commission, that it is important that universities prioritise opportunities for mobility within their employment conditions.

SULF overall views
The issues raised in the report are vital to SULF members and the union has worked long and hard with them. At its Congress in the autumn of 2015, SULF members took a decision to work to reduce the proportion of fixed-term contracts for teaching and research staff by half and that qualifying positions will bring the right to consideration for permanent employment. We therefore welcome the Commission and consider that it is vital to create more secure and attractive research careers.

In the SULF vision, both research and education are permeated by the principles of academic freedom. This means that students, researchers and teachers, regardless of gender, should be free to choose research problems, and publish results without fear of reprisal.

One prerequisite for the SULF vision to become a reality is improved, more secure employment conditions within the university. People who fear losing their jobs may find it more difficult to speak frankly and explore academic freedom in their research. A constant search for funding means that it becomes more difficult to focus on creating new knowledge. In such a climate, the academic freedom of individual researchers suffers. The working environment suffers because employees with precarious employment situations experience more problems with poor work environment, stress and lack of confidence in management. Mobility suffers because people are forced to stay close to those they already know in order to get teaching hours or be included in a research application. In the end this leads to reduced performance. Insecure employment conditions in the academic world could lead to poorer quality of both education and research.

Working conditions and career paths must support the overall goal of the free search for new knowledge. This means that jobs must be secure, that recruitment must be transparent and that it must be easy to exchange ideas and experiences, to periodically work at other universities in Sweden or abroad, or in other sectors.

The latest figures from the Swedish Higher Education Authority show that the share of fixed grants for research and postgraduate education continues to decline, which seriously hampers the introduction of clear career paths. In 2015, 43% of funding for universities’ research was fixed grants. If the universities’ research resources consisted of a greater proportion of direct, non-competitive, fixed grants, universities would be better able to implement the Commission proposals. Consequently SULF maintains that at least 60% of research funding from the state budget should be allocated to universities in the form of direct funding, as opposed to today’s 45%.

The SULF vision is consistent with the Government’s. In his Statement of Government Policy in 2014, Prime Minister Stefan Löfven said that the abuse of fixed-term contracts must be stopped and that employment conditions for young researchers will be improved. He stressed that research should be respected as the long-term activity it is, the proportion of female professors must increase and that research funding should be distributed more equally. Finally, the Prime Minister promised that the fixed allocations for research would be given higher priority. Despite this promise, the proportion of fixed funding is still decreasing. This is not sustainable.

Changes to qualifying positions
The report proposes that a qualifying position as assistant professor of at least four, and at most six, years be introduced. This appointment may be renewed by a maximum of two years in special circumstances. The purpose of the position is that the successful applicant will be given the opportunity to develop their independence and qualifications both scientifically and educationally in order to meet the eligibility requirements for employment as associate professor. The position will give the right to consideration for permanent employment. The requirements for promotion, as well as the duration of the employment, will be stated from day one of employment and if the requirements for the position are complied with, a permanent position as associate professor will result.

In the view of the Commission, in order to be considered for such a position, the applicant must have gained his/her doctorate a maximum of five years before the application deadline. The period may be extended in special circumstances, such as illness or parental leave. The appointment will be preceded by national advertisement and, unless there are special reasons against it, also international. External assessors will be involved in the recruitment process and mobility should be considered a qualification. Assistant Professor will replace the current regulation for qualifying employment in the Higher Education ordinance.

The study also suggests that the Government should set targets for the number of qualifying positions to increase by 50% in the period 2017 to 2022 from the current level of research assistants and assistant professors. Furthermore, the gender structure of new associate professors must be monitored annually at national and university level.

SULF comments:
SULF welcomes the proposal that all qualifying positions will give the right to consideration for permanent employment and that it is now clearly stated in the report that the purpose is that these employees will become qualified both scientifically and pedagogically. This is in line with the decisions taken by the SULF Congress that qualifying positions will give the right to consideration for permanent employment and that teaching standards must be valued more highly.

The Commission believes that four years is normally sufficient, but that for some research fields such as medicine, science or technology, more time may be required. SULF feels, however, that the maximum period of such employment should be four years. The median age among doctoral graduates is 34. As a qualifying appointment often begins after several years of other fixed-term contracts, an extension of this period to six years risks creating excessively long fixed term employment chains. If the new qualifying position is limited to four years, it will still mean that the associate professor, in a statistically normal case, will be a little older than 40 before he/she gains a permanent position. Not extending this period further must be considered a strong argument, especially if placed in relation to the fact that talented people have other job opportunities to choose from. For the same reason, SULF agrees with the Commission proposal to reduce the application period from seven to five years of graduating with a doctorate.

As the Commission’s proposals are formulated, applicants must have their doctorates before the application deadline. SULF considers it would be better to state that the doctorate must be completed by start of employment, rather by the application deadline. This would avoid gaps and also to prevent young, talented researchers leaving universities. It is also important to speed up the application process so that the waiting period is not long enough for researchers to get other jobs.

The report proposes that the Government goal should be the increase of qualifying positions by 50%. SULF has previously (the SULF Shadow Report on Fixed-period Contracts in Academia 2014) demanded that a sufficient number of researchers need to be in these qualifying positions for Sweden to become be a viable future research and higher education nation. SULF has also highlighted the problem that the universities, instead of creating clear career paths, choose to employ individual researchers on fixed-term contracts, the same conclusion is drawn by the Commission. We also see a danger in some universities choosing to hire assistant professors instead of associate professors, which cannot be said to be the aim of the Commission’s proposals. It is important that it is precisely the great mass of researchers now standing outside the collegiate who will be granted teaching positions under the Ordinance. Then they will also be able to be eligible for election to the collegial body and covered by the teachers’ copyright exemption.

SULF welcomes that the Commission emphasises that gender equality will be monitored. But the question is whether this is enough? It is also important that universities address any imbalances that arise. The universities have received a special mission from the government to mainstream gender equality into all their activities, and SULF wishes to emphasise that this applies not least to the recruitment and working conditions of assistant professors.

Fixed-term contracts
The report suggest that the balance between the number of research positions and teaching positions must be changed by more researchers being employed according to the Higher Education Ordinance rather than on fixed-term contracts. The Commission also suggests that the Swedish Higher Education Authority be commissioned to produce annual statistical follow up of universities’ use of fixed-term contracts and the extent to which several such contracts follow each other. This follow-up should be carried out at national and at university level, and also include the scope of redundancies of permanent employees.

SULF comments:
SULF welcomes the proposal to convert researcher positions to ordinance-regulated teaching positions. This said, the Commission still does not have the answer to all the issues regarding fixed-term employment. Above all it is about the fact that the proposed career track will only apply to the very best future researchers. However, a university must be the same as the coach of a football team – there must be players at every position. We need scientifically-active university teachers who may not be top researchers but who are specialists in certain areas of teaching, or are simply good researchers and teachers. In addition it must, as SULF has observed since at least the previous career commission, be self-evident that graduation does not always lead to a job in academia. It must not be possible for an employer to exploit the fact that there are a number of people moving between short-term contracts, hoping to eventually get a chance to stay in the academic world on a permanent basis.

The conversion of research positions to teaching positions is also vital from a student perspective, because only those who are employed as teachers are entitled to examine.

As part of reducing the number of fixed-term contracts SULF welcomes the proposal that the Swedish Higher Education Authority should be instructed to follow up the universities in their use of fixed-term contracts. This would mean that SULF could avoid spending money and time on buying and processing data from Statistics Sweden.

Universities are responsible for creating continuity in research. SULF therefore believes that it is important that monitoring should also apply to redundancies of permanent employees. If this is done well, we will be able to get a picture of how common it is for researchers, so to speak, to get a job in one hand and a notice of redundancy in the other. A permanent position that employees know will be terminated is, by definition, insecure employment. Although it is better (than fixed-term) to get a permanent position as a researcher and then be made redundant, it can hardly be said to be a secure employment situation and this practice risks making the research profession less attractive and reducing the quality of research.

Better conditions for doctoral candidates
The Commission suggests that educational grants for doctoral candidates should be removed completely from 1 July 2017. It also suggests that students with scholarships will be employed at the latest date when, in their individual study plans, there remains the equivalent to three years of full-time study for a PhD or artistic doctorate. Doctoral candidates on scholarship do not need be employed if they are granted a scholarship within the framework of EU funded programmes where scholarships are a conventional financing form and the university concerned has insight into the scholarship conditions. The report also proposes the right to compensation for extended study periods due to illness or parental leave for doctoral candidates with insurance issued by Kammarkollegiet.

SULF Comments:
SULF approves the proposal to remove educational grants for doctoral candidates even if it is kicking in an open door as all universities have already taken a decision not to use them.

The Commission’s intention to eventually phase out scholarships as study funding is good, but it is not sufficient. Although clearly limiting the use of grants is a move in the right direction, the Commission should have gone all the way and proposed a ban on the use of grants as remuneration for work. This would also facilitate the fight against the use of grants as payment for work on the post-doctoral level, although this was not included in the Commission directives. The use of postdoctoral fellowships is a problem that urgently needs to be reviewed and corrected. As the situation is today, we have no idea of how widespread it is, but there is a risk that the scholarship problem may migrate from PhD to postdoctoral level. Here a review of tax legislation is also necessary.

SULF considers it self-evident that state authorities cannot have people working for them without being employed. This creates inequality, in addition to a number of problems with employer liability, taxes, insurance, and social security systems. Consequently SULF feels that scholarships as payment for work must be banned and that this will also apply to the exceptions listed in the Commission report. In cases where a doctoral candidate has a scholarship when entering a doctoral programme, the university can take the scholarship and transform it into salary and an employed position. If the scholarship is not sufficient to finance the relevant salary according to the applicable collective agreement, the university must go in and co-finance. This is already underway at several universities. If there are any legal obstacles to transforming all scholarships to proper salary according to this model, the relevant legislation should be urgently reviewed.

The report proposes improvements to Kammarkollegiet insurance for doctoral candidates with scholarships. This, of course, is good even though SULF has said that doctoral candidate scholarships should go. SULF also think that Chalmers and the University of Jönköping and other non-governmental universities should be given the opportunity to take out insurance with Kammarkollegiet for students who are on scholarships. These universities are not covered by the Higher Education Ordinance and therefore cannot be forced to follow its rules on financing.

In addition to the Commission’s proposal to improve conditions for students, SULF feels that the issue of residence permits also needs to be addressed. SULF welcomes the amendment to the Aliens Act, which was implemented on 1 July 2014 and which provides the opportunity for doctoral candidates, after four years in Sweden, to apply for permanent residence. However, we have noted that there is a problem with the current regulation since it assumes that they have had a residence permit for doctoral studies for at least four years. It is fairly common to begin studies after having completed all or part of their undergraduate studies in Sweden and that they initially have left time on a residence permit for studies at this level. Only when this permit is prolonged is research mentioned. If the researcher does not have time to gather at least four years with the latter form stated on the permit, he/she will not be able to obtain a permanent residence permit. In the light of the purpose of the amendment, there is no reason to make a distinction on the basis for which the residence permits were granted. Consequently we would like to link this to the date of admission to the PhD program instead.

Another problem is that a residence permit for research studies is only granted for one year at a time which creates problems for the individuals concerned, their families and the universities. It is difficult to go abroad for conferences etc. and a lot of time is spent on arranging permits instead of working. This is very much more evident now considering the workload that the Migration Agency has to shoulder due to the refugee situation. Consequently, a residence permit for doctoral studies should be granted for the entire expected period of study from the outset.

Finally, there are problems when applying for citizenship linked to the question that is reportedly still asked about when the researcher is expecting to leave Sweden. If the researcher responds in the belief that there is a requirement to leave the country, he/she is at risk of a future application for citizenship being rejected. This is a problem that must be appropriately addressed by the legislators.

Increased mobility
The Commission considers that a uniform system of qualifying appointments will exert a positive impact on mobility and also proposes an annual mobility statistical follow-up. The Swedish Higher Education Authority has decided that, from 2016, Statistics Sweden will be instructed to include a number of issues concerning international mobility in its statistical survey of research at universities and colleges.

The report believes that mobility will be a qualification for all research and teaching positions, and particularly in the case of assistant professor positions.

SULF comments:
SULF shares the Commission’s assessment that a new qualifying appointment will have a positive impact on mobility. More permanent and more qualifying positions as assistant professor with the right to consideration for permanent employment have the potential to lead to more long-term cooperation and exchanges. Provided that all assistant professorships are properly advertised, the new system can contribute to making employment more attractive, to both Swedish and foreign researchers. Greater coherence of international career paths also makes it easier to attract more qualified applicants.

Although SULF supports the Commission’s view that mobility should be a qualification, it is important from a trade union perspective to ensure that mobile researchers are not “punished” by lower pension points or reduced job security. The fact that universities take responsibility for creating a balance between work and other aspects of life is important to create the attractive positions that the best applicants will want.

Doctoral graduates are on average 34 years old, an age that coincides with family formation. It is vital therefore not to build systems that prevent young researchers with young children from making an academic career.

SULF considers that physical mobility for longer periods certainly should be a qualification but not a definite requirement for promotion. Today, there are other ways to participate in international networks, such as briefer, regular visits or “mobility gaps”, or “internationalization at home” in the form of, for example, inviting colleagues from other countries, or meetings and conferences with the help of technology (webinars). Because we know that women generally stay abroad for shorter periods than men, and it is reasonable to assume that this is linked to a greater family responsibilities, it is important from a gender perspective to recognise other types of international participation than the traditional long stay overseas.

Those who travel out in many cases tend to publish a little less than those who stay at home and may easily lag behind even if their competence has developed. The academic world needs to be better able to assess knowledge of a type different to the purely academic.

Having said this, SULF approves the Commission’s proposal for annual statistical follow-up of mobility and believes, as does the Commission, that it is important that universities reward opportunities for mobility in employment.

Gender equality impact analysis
The Commission believes that the proposals in the report will equalise the differences between men and women in doctoral studies and in employment in assistant professor positions. Clear, transparent processes and employment ads are important because we know that women are disadvantaged if these fail.

In SULF’s input for the recent Research Bill, we wrote that clear criteria and open calls have been shown to promote gender equality and reduce the risk of nepotism.
In Sweden, only one quarter of professors are women, with considerable variations between subjects. An absolute prerequisite for becoming a professor is to qualify from a research aspect. Consequently, assistant professor positions must also be created in areas where many women are active. Today, they are most common in areas where many men work.

Among doctoral candidates, a higher proportion of women than men take sick leave due to problems related to the psychosocial work environment. With security of employment, regardless of gender, opportunities for gender equal parental leave increase. There are currently very few women among doctoral candidates who travel to Sweden from other countries. With better, secure employment conditions, there could be more.

As for mobility, it is vital to remember that thesis defence often coincides with starting a family. This will probably have a greater impact on women than on men, for the reasons mentioned above. Consequently SULF considers that it is important that forms of international exchange other than longer-term stays are recognised as a qualification. Strict requirements for mobility in the form of long international stays is liable to hinder universities’ task of mainstreaming gender equality into all its activities.

For the Swedish Association of University Teachers and Researchers

Mats Ericson              Karin Åmossa
Chair Senior               Head of Research and International Affairs


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