Ask the panel

May 27, 2005

Worried about your employment, maternity, pension rights? Send your questions to The Times Higher advice panel.

After 15 years as a lecturer and senior lecturer in my department I feel my permanent position is under threat from new fixed-term regulations. My research field has shrunk recently and my head of department does not consider it to have a long-term future. He has hinted that he may prefer to make me redundant and retain a promising researcher employed on a short-term contract. How can I protect my job?

* Our Universities and Colleges Employers' Association panellist gives an overview of your position. "It is not the fixed-term regulations that pose a threat, but rather the changing needs and priorities that face any research institution - indeed, any employer. The best way to protect your job is to demonstrate long-term viability for your research field or a related one," he says.

"If this is not possible and your assumption is right, your employer must use fair and objective criteria for deciding on redundancy. If you think these are flawed, you may have grounds to appeal the decision."

* The research councils echo this. "Science is a competitive business as far as maintaining a portfolio of research grants and contracts is concerned. Research priorities come and go in terms of perceived importance. Nevertheless, as an individual you will have gained skills that are valuable in research and they may be transferable to other areas, interdisciplinary projects or even other jobs," he says.

He outlines possibilities. "Apart from the teaching side, 'outreach' activities such as knowledge transfer and public understanding are increasing in profile. Depending on the field, there may also be significant demographic issues such that retirement of staff in the next ten years will produce shortages."

* The Association of University Teachers' panellist reminds you of your rights. "The acquisition of new rights for fixed-term staff does not mean that others have rights removed," he says.

Assuming you are in a pre-1992 university, he says, "university statutes revised in 1993 provide for universities to consider people for redundancy where work has ceased or demand for a particular type of work has diminished. But general law on redundancy places obligations on employers, including the requirement to seek to reduce the need for job losses and to consider possible alternative employment. The statutes would require a decision by the university council to form a committee to review the need for redundancies and oversee methods of selection."

He advises: "Universities are large institutions undertaking a range of activities with substantial administrative resources. The prospect of identifying suitable alternative employment should be possible. At whatever stage staff may be in their careers, there is always scope for further development. Before any consideration is given to ending employment, good employment practice requires that alternative areas of work are explored."

* Our resident academic says: "Welcome to a glimpse of the insecure world research staff inhabit. My advice to you is the same as it would be to a researcher, although you are likely to have much more time to put it into practice since your notice period will almost certainly be longer than theirs and you are not required to fund your own salary.

"Try to establish what is key to being retained. If bringing in research funding is essential and opportunities in your field are diminishing, diversify or apply your skills elsewhere.

"Find out who is doing related work in different departments. Look for opportunities for cross-disciplinary research perhaps funded from a different source. Heads of department are increasingly asking both researchers and lecturers for a three-to-five-year research plan indicating the funding sources to be applied to as a way of managing risk surrounding income streams. It may help if you do something similar.

"If teaching or administration is key to your retention, look at how either of these might be applied further, not just in your department but elsewhere in the university."

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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