Union leaders condemned vice-chancellors for putting four out of ten academics, including more than 450 university professors, on to temporary contracts.
They warned academics were being forced to "dumb down", sacrificing valuable long-term pure research for easy studies which could fit into a three- , six- or twelve-month contract.
A joint union survey found nearly 54,000 out of universities' 126,000 teaching and research staff were only offered short-term jobs. Leaders of the eight unions representing university staff said job insecurity was creating stress and damaging vital research and teaching work.
In some cases research staff had been through as many as three contracts a year. The vast majority of staff on short-term contracts are researchers, where temporary appointments account for 95 per cent of staff. But the latest available figures show nearly one in five mainstream lecturers were temporary and six per cent of professors.
Universities argue temporary appointments give them flexibility to deal with uncertain funding arrangements.
But David Triesman, general secretary of the Association of University Teachers, said: "If you talk to researchers today it's quite different to five or ten years ago. Then they would have been bursting to talk to you about the breakthroughs they were making. Now they tell you how many weeks they have left on their contracts.
"It's harder and harder to keep really good research teams in UK research universities. There's a much clearer understanding in the States that research takes a long time." He blamed short-term research funding and vice-chancellors' fear of budget cuts.
Amanda Hart, of the National Association of Teachers in Further and Higher Education, which represents staff in the new universities, said: "A lot of people are on one-year contracts and every year they have the uncertainty about whether their job is going to be renewed. They find they can't get mortgages and they can't get loans. Contracts also affect their work because people can't commit themselves to long-term plans like developing courses."
The Dearing report into higher education, published last year, also warned that increasing use of short-term contracts could hit the quality of courses and research.Reuse content