Ask the panel

October 14, 2005

I have a question about my conditions of employment as a postdoc on a Natural Environment Research Council project. Is it usual practice to issue contracts on a yearly basis for projects funded for three years and where the postdoc is named on the application? What rights, if any, do I have in this situation to ask for a contract for the duration of the project?

* Our Research Councils UK panellist says: "Universities have their own employment rules. However, annual contracts are not usual practice. The following paragraph is in the Nerc grants handbook: 'The research organisation is expected to adopt the principles, standards and best practice for the management of research staff set out in the 1996 Concordat for the Career Management of Contract Research Staff, and subsequent amendments. The Concordat can be found on the Universities UK website at http:///www.universitiesuk.ac.uk/activities/rci.asp. Research staff should be appointed on terms that are no less favourable than those of comparable posts in the research organisation.'"

She adds that the Guide to Best Practice from the Research Careers Initiative (in 1998) says fixed-term contracts should not be used automatically, since this creates cynicism, encourages short-termism, frustrates the development of good management and prevents the development of any planned career structure. She suggests you might want to check out the guide and concordat and ensure your university is aware of them.

* The Association of University Teachers panellist says: "It would be more usual to issue a contract for at least the duration of the project and you certainly should be questioning the decision to use a one-year contract rather than a three-year or open-ended contract.

"Even if the employer is unwilling to change the contract, if you have at least one year's service you are protected against unfair dismissal. So, at the end of the year, if the work is continuing, any attempt to dismiss you because your one-year contract is ending is likely to be regarded as an unfair dismissal. If you are the named researcher on the project, it will be even more difficult for the employer to argue that a shorter contract was fair.

"However, it would be advisable to negotiate a change to your contract before then so we recommend that you talk to your local trade union and manager or human resources department as soon as possible."

* The Universities and Colleges Employers' Association panellist recommends that negotiations are carried out before the contract is issued, adding:

"The Joint Negotiating Committee for Higher Education Staff (JNCHES) recently issued good practice guidance on the use of fixed-term and casual employment. Although institutions have individual employment rules, issuing an annual contact for a three-year project is over-cautious and a request for extension seems reasonable."

* The Natfhe panellist agrees: "The JNCHES guidance on casualisation makes it very clear that the onus is on employers to justify the use of one-year or short contracts where there is a reasonable likelihood of more extended funding. In this case, there is clearly funding for three years, so the minimum contract should be a three-year contract - a one-year contract seems completely inappropriate."

He adds: "Offering one-year contracts on this basis is contrary to the spirit of the fixed-term regulations, which places the onus on the employer to either justify such contracts or phase them out. If there is any question of the one-year contract not being renewed or made continuous, you should consider a claim for unfair dismissal. If the employer does not plan to renew your contract, then they should start formal consultation on the possibility of redundancies in accordance with their statutory obligations."

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