How big a problem is long temporary employment in HE?

A representative of the Swedish Association of University Teachers and Researchers (SULF) has challenged the findings of a recent report from the Swedish Higher Education Authority (UKÄ), which claims that “stacking” of temporary positions in higher education is a limited problem.

Head of Policy and International Affairs Karin Åmossa at SULF said the definition of stacking used in the investigation masks underlying problems associated with temporary positions in academia.

According to the report, stacking occurs when a person has had at least three separate fixed-term contracts, where at least one of these is based on the university’s regulations and one of them on some other form of temporary employment according to the Employment Protection Act, such as temporary employment or so-called general fixed-term employment.

According to Berglund et al, stacking involves “changing the type of contract, for example from substitute to general fixed-term, just before the two-year period finished [which period of employment bestows the right to a permanent contract] and thereby extending the length of time in temporary positions”.

A limited phenomenon

The UKÄ report, titled “Stacking of temporary positions in academia: How common are they and what reasons exist?”, was written by Helen Wintgren, Per-Anders Ostling and Eva Stening (in Swedish). It concludes that stacking is limited to only 4% of almost 13,000 temporary positions examined.

The report was commissioned to investigate concerns that the rate of stacking in the higher education sector is too high. In 2020, 28% of researchers and teaching personnel were estimated to hold such temporary contracts measured in relation to full-time positions, with approximately 13% holding a temporary position governed by higher education regulations, while 15% had contracts based upon another regulation.

Instead, the report found that stacking exists to a limited extent only and that approximately 4% of those temporarily employed in 2020 had experienced some form of stacking earlier in their career and, among doctoral candidates in 2008, approximately 3% had experienced stacking up to 2020.

The report was based on interviews undertaken at 16 higher education institutions involving rectors, vice-rectors, personal directors and deans.

Most of them did not recognise temporary employment as a great problem.

According to the report, a total of 12,938 persons were employed in temporary positions in Swedish higher education institutions in 2020 and 40% of these were in the category “other research and teaching personnel”.

Thirty percent were in recruitment positions, 21% were postdocs, 6% were assistant lecturers, 2% were research assistants, 12 % were adjuncts, 9% lecturers and 9% professors. Four percent were 68 years or more and one fifth had a position of less than 20% of full-time.

For 50%, this was their first or second position as temporarily employed in Swedish higher education and a little more than 2,000 persons had worked for six years or more in temporary positions (16% in 2020). Of those temporarily contracted, 560 had been in a stacking situation in the period 2008-20. Out of those persons with six or more years in temporary positions during 2008-09, 25% had experienced stacking.

Differences among institutions

The report highlighted significant differences in temporary employment among institutions.

The highest percentage of staff on temporary employment contracts was found at the University of Arts, Crafts and Design (80%) and the Royal Institute of Art (66%) and Beckmans College of Design (54%). Karolinska Institute had 45%, Stockholm University 32%, Lund University 30% and the lowest percentage was found at Kristianstad University with 5,9%.

UKÄ suggested that the differences between the institutions reflect the fact that institutions oriented towards teaching have fewer temporary engagements compared to those that are research intensive and which have high levels of external funding for research.

Åmossa told Universitatslararen that it is good that UKÄ is addressing the question of insecure positions within academia and said that SULF has highlighted these problems over a long period.

“The high degree of temporary positions within academia is remarkable,” she said, “notably because the most well-educated and qualified people that are in the workforce are employed within higher education and research.”

“And temporary employment is a great problem for individuals because, for instance, you cannot get a loan from the bank. And the use of stacking or long chains of temporary engagements is a further problem since it risks encouraging people to move out of the sector of higher education,” she said.

“The results from a very limited definition [of stacking in the report], combined with insufficient robust data suggest that few are affected and that the problem is not significant,” Åmossa said.

Follow-up investigations

“But the investigators at UKÄ also admit this and are recommending further follow-ups of temporary engagements with a broader basis, and SULF is supportive of this,” she said, referring to a separate report by UKÄ on career paths within higher education which found that it is common to be temporarily engaged as a lecturer for 10 years after graduating with a doctorate and before getting a tenured position.

“And still only 20% of the graduates who graduated in 2011 succeed [in securing permanent employment],” Åmossa said.

“Those who are graduating now are of course thinking about choosing a career outside of academia.

“And with the future prospect of having to be temporarily employed for 10 years with a string of contracts and perhaps be among the one-fifth of the graduated cohort that secures a tenured lectureship, for many this is too long and insecure a career path that threatens to lose many competent people along the road,” she said.