Agony aunt

April 16, 1999

Q. I have been trying unsuccessfully for five years to get a sabbatical. Is this unusual and are there any national guidelines on sabbatical leave?

A. Paul Cottrell, Assistant general secretary, Association of University Teachers

You do not say whether you are from an old university or a new one. Old universities are more likely to offer sabbaticals. Having said that, practice varies between institutions. In some, individuals negotiate with their heads of department while in others, staff have an entitlement.

I would expect research-active staff to have sabbatical leave of about six months to one year for every five to seven years worked in an old university. Even if you are not research active, you should still have sabbatical leave to develop teaching materials or write a book.

But it is becoming more and more difficult in universities generally to get sabbatical leave. The Association of University Teachers' position would be that all academic staff should have access to sabbaticals. Even when staff are contractually entitled to it, it is hard to take in some departments when you know that colleagues will have to take on your teaching responsibilities and administrative work. It is also getting more difficult to persuade management that non-research staff need sabbaticals.

Sabbatical leave is important for individual development and for the university system as a whole. We are aware that it has been degraded over the years. However it would be very difficult to get a national agreement on sabbatical leave. The AUT could produce guidelines but it would then be a matter for negotiations with individual institutions.

A. Gordon Brown, Professor of psychology, University of Warwick

The system here is quite a generous one: for every six terms we work, we are entitled to take one term's sabbatical leave. I took the spring term as sabbatical last year and spent two months in North America, visiting colleagues and effectively starting a research collaboration.

As a research-led university, Warwick University views sabbatical leave as an important part of life. Sabbaticals benefit students: we engage in research-led teaching and sabbaticals enable us to keep up-to-date with that. Sabbaticals also allow us to develop and maintain research collaborations.

On a personal level, it is a chance for staff to refresh and recharge their intellectual abilities. It is also a chance for staff to concentrate on one particular research problem.

A. Amanda Hart, National officeial, Natfhe

The whole concept of sabbatical leave does not exist, by and large, in the new universities. We know of some people who have gained it, so it is not impossible, but it is rare. It is more likely if other colleagues in your department are prepared to cover your teaching load.

There should be a more formal system of entitlement to sabbaticals; there is no national agreement. At the moment, any arrangements are ad hoc and depend on departments' cash flow, which is inherently unfair.

Sabbaticals are a real opportunity for people to develop research ideas, write a book or move into an area that is not possible when they are teaching. We did draw up guidelines a few years ago when we were comparing the pay and conditions of staff in different sorts of university. In some institutions, the guidelines have been included in the staff handbook.

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