Academic workload troubles the unions

January 8, 1999

Lawyers are wrestling with the impact of working time regulations on academic staff, following concerns from both unions and employers, writes Harriet Swain.

The regulations, which came into effect in October, provide a legal entitlement to paid holiday and, for most workers, a maximum 48-hour working week.

But the Association of University Teachers fears lecturers could be exempt because they have relative autonomy over how long they work. It warns against negotiating individual workload agreements before the position is clarified.

Certain groups of professionals are exempt from the regulations if they control the hours they work themselves. Most academics in old universities have contracts of employment that do not specify fixed working hours. Teachers in new universities have fixed student contact hours but their total working time also remains flexible.

Unions are anxious to preserve this freedom for their members while ensuring they share the protection against excessive working hours.

A letter to local union secretaries from AUT general secretary David Triesman states that a balance is needed between "defining the limits of what can be reasonably required of academic and related staff and I ensuring that there is no undue intrusion into professionally self-regulated areas of work".

Robert McCreath, partner in the law firm Eversheds, said it was "dangerous to assume" that a blanket conclusion can be applied because many academics wanted to put in long hours for research because they were enthusiastic about it, while others needed to guard against teaching overload.

The alternative was for staff to opt out of the working time regulations. But this would mean academics filling in time sheets and institutions monitoring timetables.

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