Ask the panel

August 26, 2005

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

I am a female researcher of black Caribbean origin employed on a two-year fixed-term contract. This is my fifth research position in the past five years; all five have been fixed-term posts. I have long-term career aspirations to move to a senior academic grade but I feel that long service on such contracts has affected my prospects. Can I improve my chances of progression?

* Our panellist from the Equality Challenge Unit , which this week joins the advice team, says: "There are two issues to be tackled here.

The first is an equal-opportunities issue. The second concerns your rights as a fixed-term contract worker in light of fixed-term employees (prevention of less favourable treatment) regulations 2002.

"As a woman of black Caribbean origin, you should see if there are any positive action initiatives undertaken by your institution. The Race Relations (Amendment) Act 2000 places a general duty on your institution to promote race equality. A similar duty will be introduced under forthcoming gender legislation. Speak with your manager. He or she should be able to discuss career development options and advise you of any possible initiatives promoting equality of opportunity and procedures. Seek advice from your human resources department or trade union."

On fixed-term contracts, she says: "The fixed-term employees regulations require employers to give fixed-term employees the same opportunities to secure permanent positions as permanent employees. As you have amassed four or more years of continuous employment you should be employed on a permanent basis unless your department can demonstrate an objective justification for a fixed-term contract."

* The Association of University Teachers' panellist also points to the Race Relations (Amendment) Act. "A union can require the employer to provide information on its measures to promote equality and an assessment of their effectiveness. The Joint Negotiating Committee for Higher Education Staff-Equality Challenge Unit guidance Partnership for Equality and the national framework agreement on pay and grading stress the need for staff development support to secure equal opportunities.

"Find out if your employer has committed to applying the concordat for the career development of contract research staff. If so, it should help you to develop your career."

* The Natfhe panellist says: "Natfhe is building a network of local representatives to assist members in developing their careers, negotiating access to and provision of appropriate courses and time off.

Institutions are required to publish to all staff their policies for achieving race equality. Employers now have a legal duty to monitor their workforce's composition by racial group, compare this with the student body and the local census. They must investigate how the workforce is distributed across the institution, by location, job and grade. They must find out whether particular groups are suffering discrimination at interview stage."

* The panellist from the Universities and Colleges Employers' Association also refers you to fixed-term regulations. It adds: "In the meantime, your employer should demonstrate best practice and ensure that fixed-term contract staff are given the same career development opportunities as your colleagues on indefinite contracts."

* Research Councils UK adds: "The research councils are providing funding to universities for additional training for postdoctoral researchers, mainly in transferable skills.

"You can find guidance on career development for postdoctoral researchers from your human resources department, documentation produced under the Research Careers Initiative ( http:///www.universitiesuk.ac.uk/activities/rci.asp ); and the Career Development Pack developed by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council ( http:///www.epsrc.ac.uk )."

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