Ask the panel

October 7, 2005

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

I am about to take a contract as a senior academic. It does not specify days or hours of work. What is the legal position about hours of work for academics on such contracts?.

* Our Universities and Colleges Employers' Association panellist says: "It is normal for an academic contract not to specify days or hours of work, as might otherwise be the case under Part 1 of the Employ-ment Rights Act 1966.

"To the advantage of the employee, academic employment offers a high degree of flexibility as to when and where work is done, particularly in relation to research and other activities.

"As a result, academics are covered by the unmeasured working time derogation in the Working Time Regulations 1998.

"However, from a practical point of view, it is important that you and your head of department agree the details of your workload, the standards required and the delivery timetable."

* The Association of University Teachers panellist adds:"Although there are no days or hours specified in your contract, the university must use a notional number of days/hours in carrying out certain calculations.

"Without notional days/hours, it would be impossible for the university to calculate part-time salaries and hourly paid contracts or to identify directly allocated staff costs on research projects.

"The notional working week for teaching and research academics tends to be between 35 and 37 hours, and annual leave is usually at least 30 days (in addition to public holidays and other closure days).

"Ask the university what it uses as notional hours/ leave in its calculations. If you are on a salary grade with other staff who have specified hours/annual leave, any requirements for you to work longer hours or take less leave could give rise to equal pay considerations.

"New grading structures brought in under the framework agreement - with common grade boundaries for different staff groups - make this more likely.

"Your employer also has a duty under health and safety legislation to ensure that you are not put under unreasonable workload pressure, whether or not hours and leave are specified.

"Finally, the working time regulations protect you from being required to work more than 48 hours a week (on average) unless you have specifically agreed to opt out, and it provides for 20 days' annual leave.

"There is an exemption in cases of 'unmeasured working time', but the AUT feels that there are strong arguments that this exemption should not apply to academic and related higher education staff."

* Our Natfhe panellist says: "If you work in a post-92 institution, there is a national contract setting out key aspects of the hours of most academic staff.

"It is possible that you are not covered by the national contract. If you are, there is a maximum level of teaching hours (18 per week and 550 per year) together with provision for protected time for research and scholarly activity, administration and annual leave. Get details from the local Natfhe branch secretary or at www.natfhe.org.uk.

"If you are covered by the national contract (or an agreed local variation), then whether or not your contract sets this out, you should draw the university's attention to any excessive workload.

"In any case, all staff are covered by the working time regulations giving you the right not to work more than a maximum of 48 hours a week. Your university may claim that you are exempt from this requirement, but Natfhe does not accept that this is automatically the case.

"Your employer must not require you to work such hours that your health and safety is at risk. If you are concerned that your hours and duties are too high, you should keep a diary of what hours you need to do to meet your contractual requirements. At an appropriate point, you should ask to discuss your workload. In some institutions, where challenging such issues is frowned on, this may mean waiting until any probationary period is over.

"But it is essential that you record and raise such issues.

Otherwise, your employers can claim that they did not know there was a problem."

This advice panel includes the Association of University Teachers, Natfhe, the Universities and Colleges Employers' Association, Research Councils UK, the Equality Challenge Unit 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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