Cambridge Researchers Report highlights pay pressures, job insecurity and “a culture of overwork”

Cambridge UCU Researchers Campaign has released a report summarising the key findings of a survey we undertook in 2023. You can read an extract from the report conclusions below. We are continuing to campaign and organise to win a better deal for researchers at Cambridge both in the University and Colleges. Get in touch with us if you want to join or get involved! 

The full text is available for download here
Join our public launch event for the report at 1pm on 17 June – register here

Summary of key findings

Most researchers (69%) at Cambridge University are employed on a fixed-term basis (data from Cambridge University HR Division). Cambridge UCU have in recent years run surveys among graduate students and temporarily employed or hourly-paid teaching staff which has highlighted the precarity and casualisation of students and staff in these categories. We followed this information gathering up with a survey on job security and working conditions among 135 researchers at the University or its Colleges, collected between March and October 2023. The sample of respondents is broadly representative of the general researcher population at Cambridge in terms of types of contracts and distribution across the University Schools.

A selection of the findings is summarised below.

Job insecurity

  • 71% of the researchers who responded to the survey were employed on a fixed-term contract. Of note, among those who had been employed at Cambridge for 10 years or more, 36% reported still being employed on a fixed-term basis. The results were similar for those employed for five years or more.
  • 15% had at least once had their contract extended by less than 12 months. The shortest reported contract extensions were of 1 month.
  • Among those with a current fixed-term contract, 7% had seen their contract extended three times or more and 16% had a current contract lasting less than 12 months.

Pay pressures

  • 84% reported being affected by rising costs of living.
  • Among those employed full-time, 9% reported a salary of less than £30,000. Most of these low-salary researchers were College Research Fellows.

A culture of overwork

  • 62% reported that they regularly worked more than their contracted hours.
  • Of note, 26% of full-time employees reported working more than the legal limit of 48 hours per week. The highest reported working hours exceeded 70 hours per week.

Priority issues

A majority of the respondents reported being affected by:

  • career prospects and job precarity (74%),
  • uncertainty about future funding (69%),
  • level of pay (64%), and/or
  • insecure contracts (61%).

In addition to the above areas, the respondents indicated wanting improved support with:

  • accommodation (47%),
  • mental health (38%),
  • immigration and visas (36%),
  • childcare and additional parental leave (36% and 23% respectively), and
  • commuting costs (24%).


The findings from the staff survey reveal significant concerns related to casualisation, job insecurity, excessive workloads, and inadequate compensation experienced by researchers at Cambridge University. One alarming trend is the extensive reliance on fixed-term contracts, even for researchers with lengthy service at the institution. This pattern is underscored by the University’s own records, which indicate that 69% of researchers were on fixed-term contracts in November 2023. Pervasive researchers’ precarity stands in stark contrast to the valuable role researchers play in elevating the University’s global standing and financial prosperity. Research outcomes contribute significantly to the University’s consistent high position in global and national university rankings (2nd in QS 2023), while research grants and contracts account for 25% of the University’s total revenue (£551.80 million), according to the 2021/22 Annual Financial Report.

Particularly concerning is the prevalence of very short-term research contracts, also confirmed by the University’s own data (13.3% in November 2023 had contracts lasting 12 months or less), further exacerbating the precarious employment situation for researchers. Of equal concern is the recurrent renewal of fixed-term contracts without a transition to more secure positions. This practice is in contradiction to the University’s official fixed-term contract policy, which mandates the conversion of fixed-term contracts to open-ended ones upon the second renewal, except in exceptional circumstances (see text box).

Rents in Cambridge have long been amongst the highest in England, and have risen further during the cost of living crisis (Cambridgeshire Live; Office for National Statistics). The vast majority of researchers report being adversely affected by the rising cost of living and inadequate pay. The financial struggles faced by the majority of researchers underscore UCU’s persistent demands for pay increases to combat a real pay cut of over 20% over the last 15 years due to inflation. Researchers at Cambridge Colleges are particularly affected, given that none of the constituent Colleges recognise any trade union to represent their research staff, resulting in a de facto two-tier employment system between Cambridge University and Cambridge College researchers. Many Cambridge College researchers earn less than £30,000 per year, making them among the lowest-paid researchers in UK higher education institutions. This is particularly problematic in a city with rapidly rising rents and other costs of living.

Faced with systemic job precarity and limited career progression opportunities, many Cambridge researchers are forced to work well beyond legal weekly hours to ensure their continued employability. Given the project-based nature of research and the current structure of research funding, there is a remarkable lack of employer and funder checks regarding the feasibility of agreed project deliverables within contracted working hours. The absence of comprehensive career opportunities, long-term funding, meaningful redeployment policies, and long-term funding fosters a culture of overwork, putting researchers at risk of burnout and mental health issues, which contradicts the University’s commitment to employee well-being.

Researchers also grapple with insufficient welfare support. While Cambridge consistently ranks among the most expensive cities in the UK in terms of rent prices, accommodation assistance is insufficient. This lack has a disproportionate impact on researchers as compared to established academics due to their often short contracts. The combination of overwork, job precarity and rising costs takes a substantial toll on the mental health of researchers, resulting in an increased demand for mental health support services. Furthermore, researchers highlight a pressing need for support when it comes to visas and immigration matters, which often involve bureaucratic hurdles and financial burdens that they are left to navigate by themselves. Those with children encounter difficulties in balancing their responsibilities due to the limited material support available to them. Collectively, these issues underscore the pressing need for significant reforms in how the University treats its researchers and addresses their overall well-being.