Ask the panel

April 22, 2005

Worried about your employment, maternity, pension rights?

Send your questions to The Times Higher advice panel.

As a result of the new European Union employment regulations, my university has changed my fixed-term contract to an open-ended one. However, I will still be made redundant when the money for the research grant runs out. Is this change purely semantic or is there any benefit to being on an open-ended contract?

If you're facing redundancy, then this change must feel semantic. But the message from our advice panel is that the shift to open-ended contracts is a move in the right direction.

* The employers are upbeat. "The move from fixed-term to open-ended contract signals the university's commitment to looking at all possible options prior to redundancy and means that the institution's robust and complex redundancy procedures must be followed, thereby providing safeguards for the employee," says our panel member from the Universities and Colleges Employers' Association.

* But you're still facing redundancy. The unions may offer a way forward. Our Natfhe panellist says: "If you are on an open-ended contract, your employer must consult with you and your union if they decide to make your post redundant, and they must consider offering you other suitable employment."

Has your university done this? Natfhe points out that there is a procedure for such situations that requires the employer to explain the reasons for the redundancy, seek to reduce the need for redundancies and clarify the selection method.

Our Natfhe panellist states: "The institution must try to reach agreement with the recognised trade union on all these issues. Failure to do so will lead to the union seeking a protective award on behalf of such staff."

Our Association of University Teachers panellist says the link between research grants and research must be broken if regulations are to really bring benefits.

He says: "To ensure that the benefits of the new regulations are fully realised it is necessary for employers to agree with trade unions that there should be no automatic link between individual contracts and specific funding sources. The guidance issued by the Joint Negotiation Committee for Higher Education Staff on the use of casual employment deals with this."

(See ucea.ac.uk for more details.)

* It doesn't sound as if your employer is keen to break this link. But our academic panellist sees this as key and describes what this might mean in practical terms.

"Some universities are trying to implement the spirit as well as the letter of this new legislation, so that in the longer term there should be a different employment environment for researchers. One element of this cultural change is breaking the link between researcher and grant," she says.

"For example, instead of making you redundant automatically when the grant expires, your research group, department or faculty could consider all its grant income as a single pot and think strategically about the longer term skill requirements of the group, given future revenue opportunities. This requires the group to estimate and manage the risks of running its income stream rather than what happens now, where all the risk for each grant is borne by each individual researcher."

* Interestingly, as far as research councils are concerned, there is no automatic need to terminate a contract when a grant ends.

Our panellist from Research Councils UK says:"Although many research grants last three years, researchers will be aware that research programmes do not always fit neatly into such a straitjacket and sequential or overlapping grants from a variety of sources may be normal."

He adds that research councils often award research funds in larger grants for longer periods - for example, the Interdisciplinary Research Collaborations awards for science innovation.

The RCUK panellist adds: "While it is a matter for the university as employer to determine the conditions for a researcher, research councils can see that universities may gain advantage from employing some researchers for longer periods."

Noe-5 This advice panel includes the Association of University Teachers, Natfhe, the Universities and Colleges Employers' Association, Research Councils UK and Rachel Flecker, an academic who sits on Bristol University's contract research working party. Send questions to advicepanel@thes.co.uk

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