We are aiming to earn a label of quality

In the upcoming academic year, our university is planning to obtain a European Union quality label. The HR Excellence in Research Award would signify a recognition that the working conditions of our researchers meet all European quality standards. In order to qualify for the Award, the HRS4RUK project was set up, which includes teams from all research-oriented faculties and parts of Comenius University.

03. 10. 2022 14.46 hod.
By: Naša univerzita magazine

The main goal is not just to obtain a label, but to effectively improve the working environment so that it becomes more attractive for our young researchers and also for potential international scientists. "Our goal is to improve the quality of human resources management in order to retain domestic talent at Comenius University, and simultaneously reach out to international researchers. The HR Excellence in Research Award would indicate that we are an attractive employer in the European Research Area," HRS4RUK project coordinator Silvester Krčméry explains the essence of the new quality label.

Charter & Code

In 2021, Comenius University signed up to two fundamental documents in which the European Commission defined the standards for the employment of researchers in research institutions. They are the European Charter for Researchers and the Code of Conduct for the Recruitment of Researchers. Adopting the principles outlined in these documents, Comenius University undertook to implement a Human Resources Strategy for Researchers. The initiative received support from the Ministry of Education through the ‘HRS4RUK’ development project.

What do researchers miss at Comenius University? "We conducted a survey, held interviews and analysed current internal regulations to identify weaknesses as perceived by staff members," explains Silvester Krčméry. In 2021, all researchers who work at the university, including PhD researchers, were given the opportunity to participate in a survey and give their opinion on their employment conditions and work environment. The questionnaire surveyed several areas – ethical and professional aspects, recruitment of new staff, work environment and opportunities for further education and professional development. "The result was a gap analysis, through which we identified weaknesses (gaps) resulting from differences between the current state and the desired state - as defined by the European Charter and the Code of Conduct for the recruitment of researchers." clarifies Dr. Krčméry.

What is the European Charter for Researchers

The European Charter for Researchers sets out the responsibilities and entitlements of researchers as well as of their employers. The aim of the Charter is to ensure that the nature of the relationship between researchers and employers or funders is conducive to successful performance in generating, transferring, sharing and disseminating knowledge and technological development, and to the career development of researchers. The Charter also recognizes the value of all forms of mobility as a means for enhancing the professional development of researchers. It constitutes a framework for researchers and employers which invites them to act responsibly and as professionals within their working environment, and to recognise each other as such.

What is the Code of Conduct for the Recruitment of Researchers

The code of conduct consists of a set of general principles and requirements that should be followed by employers when recruiting researchers. It should ensure observance of values such as transparency of the recruitment process and equal treatment of all applicants, in particular with regard to the development of an attractive European labour market for researchers. For employers, the code prescribes frameworks and describes the procedures for the selection of researchers, which the recruitment process should include.

Analysis showed that in many areas Comenius University already meets European standards and employees report no issues. These include, for example, compliance with the principles of non-discrimination, freedom of research, or access to information and the latest research results. Ethical commissions are active in workplaces, and researchers can participate in decision-making through colleges, committees, senates and scientific councils.

Many gaps

The analysis, however, also identified a number of gaps, or aspects where researchers perceive deficiencies. Excessive administrative burden of researchers and insufficient support through auxiliary professional staff were among the most frequently reported. There is, for instance, a lack of experienced project managers and economic experts who could help researchers make sure that purchasing is done in accordance with public procurement rules.

The current wage levels hinder the development of labs by making it impossible to offer posts to researchers from abroad or to industry experts. Systems of remuneration and compensation are not flexible enough, due to an overall lack of funding in education, science and research. Many researchers also feel that the teaching requirements are too stringent. This excessive burden of teaching work makes it difficult to use opportunities for international mobility and limits the time they can spend developing quality grant applications.

Weak career support

Our researchers report another significant shortcoming, especially in comparison to Western European universities: the lack of an institutional strategy for the career development of researchers. "There is no career counselling on the level of the university or its faculties. PhD researchers and assistant professors often need advice and guidance on how to set their careers in research on the right course. Here, counselling is mostly informal," explains Dr. Krčméry.

Not all gaps can be eliminated easily and at short notice, but the university needs to take measures aiming for improvements. Specific steps are outlined in the Human Resources Strategy for Researchers at Comenius University. Its full text is available at CU’s website.

We meet European standards

It is not enough to earn the quality label once, it needs to be renewed. The label can be both awarded and revoked by the European Commission. There is a long-term need to monitor human resources management, carry out audits, inspections, and evaluations. "Earning the award is a signal that we meet European standards and are a modern European university. We also want to increase our power of attraction in the international research environment. Although we are often limited by funding and are unable to offer international researchers high salaries, we can offer them high-quality environment to carry out their research work." says Dr. Krčméry. The HR Excellence in Research Award was recently earned by the University of Economics in Bratislava and only three universities in Slovakia have managed to do so until to now.

Barbora Tancerová