Academics fight RAE 'lock-in'

July 6, 2007

Universities are enforcing contracts to the letter to stop staff taking up new jobs before the submission cut-off date, reports Melanie Newman

Academics are being prevented from leaving their universities to take up new jobs ahead of the research assessment exercise, The Times Higher has learned.

Sheffield, Southampton and Exeter universities are among institutions that are enforcing contractual terms to ensure that staff cannot leave their posts until after the end of October, the deadline for submissions to the RAE.

Universities are enforcing long notice periods, of up to several months, which prevent staff from improving their new employers' research ratings by transferring their research output before the deadline.

Sheffield's contract requires one full academic term's notice, which means that anyone giving notice after the first day of the summer term could be forced to stay until after the last day of the autumn term.

Robert Cook, professor of American history at Sheffield, handed in his notice in May. Writing in today's Times Higher , he said that he was told he would be sued for breach of contract if he attempted to leave before October 31.

"The head of human resources was explicit: this was all about the RAE," said Professor Cook, who said he was aware of at least three other academics at Sheffield under such a "lock-in".

A spokesperson for Sheffield said its contractual notice period had been agreed with the academic union and had been in place for several years. "The university continues to act reasonably and to exercise flexibility where this is in the mutual interests of our staff, both individually and collectively," the spokesperson added.

David Wheatley, president of Southampton University's University and College Union branch, said that several staff at Southampton were in a similar position. He accused the universities of using academics as "pawns in financial games" at a time when both the RAE and impending moves were already causing them stress.

"People are effectively being 'squeezed' between their own HR department and that of their intended destination," he said. "At one end they are being threatened with legal action over breach of contract if they do not serve their full notice period; at the same time, the destination HR department is telling them that they must begin before a certain date or the job will not be available."

A spokesperson for Southampton said: "The university endeavours, wherever possible, to agree to requests for 'short notice' from staff, as long as this does not disadvantage the university or its students. We are currently in negotiation with a very small number of staff who have asked to be released early from their contracts. We hope these negotiations will be resolved to everyone's satisfaction."

At Exeter University, UCU president Bernard Pearson said: "I am aware that the university is holding three professors to the notice period given in the university's statutes, which prevents them leaving before October."

A UCU source at Birmingham University said the HR department had confirmed that it was not prepared to be flexible over leaving dates at present because of the RAE.

John McMullen, professor of labour law at Leeds University and partner at Watson Burton LLP, said the clauses were valid and enforceable. "Notice clauses work both ways: if a university wants to get rid of an academic it has to give the same period of notice. Were the university to give less notice, the first person to complain would be the academic."

A spokesman for the Higher Education Funding Council for England said: "Issues concerning the contractual relationship between individuals and their employers are matters of employment law, and as such Hefce does not have any formal role to play.

"However, we would hope that both higher education institutions and academic staff within them, as responsible employers and employees, would respect and abide by the terms and conditions of employment."


John McMullen, professor of labour law at Leeds University and partner at Watson Burton LLP, explains the law

Where staff break the notice period, the university has a number of legal options, said Professor McMullen.

"The university could seek an injunction to stop you breaking your contract. In the commercial arena, injunctions are usually granted only to restrain an employee from working for a competitor, where there is a risk of damage to the original employer's business," he said. Injunctions are discretionary, and courts are often unwilling to force people to work together.

A university could also seek damages for breach of contract, but this is fraught with difficulty. While damages are not discretionary, the university would have to prove it had suffered loss as a result of the academic's departure.

"It would be very difficult for universities to precisely quantify the loss resulting from an academic's omission from the RAE," Professor McMullen said. "You won't even know the outcome of the RAE for several years.

"The only likely successful claim for damages would be for the cost of the replacement, and that would have to be offset against the savings on the academic's salary. A damages claim is a non-starter."

An alternative would be for the university to refuse to accept an academic's departure and keep the contract alive by continuing to pay him or her until after October 31.

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