Ask the panel

July 15, 2005

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

I have just been appointed a junior lecturer. My university insists on a three-year probation period. The new fixed-term regulations and the end of waiver clauses reduced universities' flexibility to hire and fire staff. This three-year period - during which they can sack us at any moment, particularly if we do not deliver on the research front - restores that flexibility. Is there anything I can do about it?

Our panellists first want to reassure you about your rights.

  • The University and College Employers' Association panellist says: "A contract is a two-way agreement, and you are perfectly entitled not to accept it. Having said that, while your probation period is unusually long and you may want to look into why that is the case, your employment rights will not be compromised.

    "After one year's employment, you will have full rights regardless of the probation period or length of contract. Therefore, if your institution decided to terminate your contract, it would have to follow the relevant statutory and contractual procedures - which might include, for example, redundancy if funding dries up.

    "Any research performance issue would have to be managed through your institution's disciplinary or performance-management policy. If you are worried about performance issues, you should get clarification upfront about what is expected and how success is defined."
  • The Association of University Teachers panellist answers for the old universities. "It is standard practice in pre-1992 universities to have a three-year probation period for entry-level lecturers," he says. "A probation period is not the same as a fixed-term contract and may be included in either a permanent contract or a fixed-term contract. After one year's service, an individual has the right to claim unfair dismissal, and this is not affected by the probation period or by contractual status, and therefore it is not the case that an institution can sack people at any moment."

    He goes on: "The institution should have a probation procedure setting out the support and advice that will be available during this period. The correct use of the procedure should ensure that if there are any problems about an individual's development in the role, these are raised at an early stage, with the member of staff being given adequate opportunity to address these.

    "We would advise an individual to seek advice from a trade union if he or she feels that the probation procedure is not being implemented properly, with regular review, support and guidance."
  • Our lecturers' union Natfhe panellist answers for the new universities.

    "Within post-1992 institutions, the national contract sets out a 12-month probation period. Moreover, many institutions take the view that the probation period is for entry to the profession as an academic and they have much softer requirements for subsequent appointments. In any case, 12 months tends to be a maximum, not a minimum.

    "If the university insists on a three-year probation period, check what the contract says and contact the local union branch. An extensive probation period is indeed dangerous and, in Natfhe's view, would be an abuse of the procedure. The local branch should challenge it. Any probation period needs to be accompanied by a proper period of induction and support."
  • The Research Councils UK panellist adds: "It is my understanding that a probation period must be reasonable and should be the time necessary to prove your competence in the job. Your university may feel that three years is necessary, but you might want to inquire whether the university has recently increased its probation period. If it has, it would be legitimate to ask what had changed. Even if you have been given three years' probation, this does not take away your rights in terms of unfair dismissal or redundancy."

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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