Specialist staff highlight flaws in Higher Education and Research Bill

Specialist staff highlight flaws in Higher Education and Research Bill

The Higher Education and Research Bill being debated in House of Lords on 6 December poses a risk to thousands of specialist staff because of how the bill defines a ‘relevant specialist employee’, Prospect union has warned.


Prospect represents around 3,000 members in higher education and research throughout the UK – primarily in the research councils and related bodies, some of which will become part of UK Research and Innovation (UKRI).

The union’s main interest is in Part 3 of the Bill as these provisions will directly affect its members.

Sue Ferns, deputy general secretary said: “Prospect does not object to the Bill in principle. We welcome confirmation of the government’s aim to protect the Haldane principle and autonomy for expert decision-makers.

“We hope that the creation of UKRI will further aid cross-discipline working and support the current research councils’ ability to provide strategic oversight in their relevant fields of activity.

“However, we do have concerns about the operational implications of the Bill – particularly section 89, subsection 3, which defines ‘relevant specialist employees’.”

The union says the term ‘relevant specialist employees’ is too narrowly defined and should be expanded to include engineers, systems and IT specialists, all of whose skills are key to their employing organisations’ success.

In one research council – the Science and Technology Facilities Council – the terms ‘researcher’ and ‘scientist’ cover just 10% of the Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths (STEM) workforce.

Only those defined as ‘relevant specialist employees’ will have terms and conditions set by their employing research council rather than the UKRI.

“It would be challenging and potentially inflexible to list all the specialisms required, so we believe the term ‘technical staff’ would be more appropriate.

“Set in the context of the Treasury’s very narrow definition of who is entitled to benefit from pay flexibilities, the implications will be all too apparent. It is therefore essential that a broader definition is adopted in the Bill.

“The UK already faces additional challenges in maintaining STEM capacity and expertise in the light of the EU referendum decision. It makes no sense and would be counter-productive to send further negative messages to these highly-skilled staff about the value of their work.

“Unfortunately this important point is one of several that has not been resolved during the Bill’s Parliamentary scrutiny to date,” Ferns concluded.

The union has urged peers to intervene in the Second Reading debate on Tuesday 6 December to ensure this important issue is proper considered.