Agony Aunt

November 12, 1999

Q I am considering accepting a three-year fixed-term contract at a university and was puzzled to find a requirement to sign a redundancy waiver. Aren't these now unlawful?

* David Bleiman, Assistant general secretary, Association of University Teachers

A The redundancy waiver is not unlawful, although the Bett committee has recommended that universities should make redundancy payments to staff on contracts for more than one year. It is probably worth pointing out to your prospective employer that what they are requesting you to sign is now considered bad practice.

As of October 25, employers can no

longer ask you to sign off your unfair dismissal rights (I am not sure whether they have asked you to do this). As you will have rights in the event of unfair dismissal at the end of a three-year contract, you can expect your new employer to consult you fully ahead of the termination date to look at all the alternatives to redundancy, for example redeployment, retraining, careers advice and so on.

The recognised trade union, which is

likely to be either the Association of University Teachers or Natfhe, is also entitled to consultation with a view to avoiding redundancies. Where redundancy genuinely cannot be avoided, the consultation includes "mitigating the consequences".

Many universities may now consider that the modest statutory redundancy payment

is the easiest way to meet this requirement. In fact many universities do now pay statutory redundancy including, for example, Leeds, Manchester and University College London plus all the major Scottish universities.

The legal changes brought about through the Employment Relations Act 1999 have eliminated the unfair dismissal waiver for new contracts and for renewals as of last month. In addition, the financial compensation that can be awarded by employment tribunals has been lifted to Pounds 50,000.

There is now much greater pressure brought to bear on universities to ensure that their employment practices in relation to fixed-term staff are fair and fully defensible. The picture around the country is fairly patchy still.

The AUT and the university employers will shortly commence a joint working party to look at the future of fixed-term contracts.

Meantime many university personnel officers are already asking themselves whether the costs of reliance on fixed-term contracts outweigh perceived benefits.

Waiver clauses should, we believe, all be made unlawful. It is after all nonsense to have a legal entitlement that you can then be made to sign away.

The AUT has been campaigning vigorously for good employment practices and the removal of all waiver clauses in higher education. There are new codes of practice in many key institutions which value their own research reputation.

When the Bett report, investigating pay and conditions in higher education, was published in June, it recommended that higher education institutions should be prepared to offer redundancy pay to staff on contracts of more than a year.

The report also noted that "the sums involved will only be significant where the employee concerned has had a series of such contracts at the same institution (and perhaps ought, in our view, to have been on a 'permanent' contract)".

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