Ask the panel

December 2, 2005

I have been asked to give a talk at an international conference about work carried out during my previous research contract. Although this subject is related to my new research contract, it is too distant for the external funder to pay for me to attend. My lecturer colleagues are entitled to have conference expenses paid by the university, but as a researcher I am not. Is this fair treatment?

* The Association of University Teachers panellist says:

"Remember that the university is your employer, not the external funder. As such, it should support you in activities that will have a positive impact on your career and it should look at ways to support you in accepting the invitation to speak at such a conference.

"Check the staff development policy - the university has as much of an obligation to you as an externally funded researcher as it does to lecturing staff. In addition, if the employer refuses to meet expenses for fixed-term staff while paying them for permanent staff, there may be a breach of the Fixed Term Employee (Prevention of Less Favourable Treatment) Regulations 2002. Ask your trade union for advice."

* Our Natfhe panellist says: "International recognition is used as a measure of research evaluation and as a criterion for promotion.

Institutions stand to gain if their staff speak at international conferences. Participation in conferences is also a form of professional development all staff should have access to."

* The Universities and Colleges Employers' Association panellist says: "Paid time off and expenses for participating in conferences are allocated in a way that will enhance both the university and the employee and, for that reason, will be directly related to their current work. It is understandable that neither the external funder nor the university will fund you. Perhaps you should see this as a chance to show your commitment to your professional development instead of looking to your employer to do so."

* Our resident academic says: "The fact that you are in a department that allocates funds for conferences is a bonus. Your head of department may be open to persuasion, particularly if you can use your participation as an research assessment exercise esteem indicator. You should also ask the conference organisers to fund your trip. Apart from funds they may have to support those with insufficient resources, many pay or contribute to the expenses of keynote and invited speakers."

She adds: "It is worth exploring any grants your university or professional organisations have. The generic issue of whether departmental funds for conferences should be used to support all academic staff, research or lecturing, is one you could raise at the next departmental meeting."

* Our Research Councils UK panellist gives more detail: "The terms and conditions of research council grants say your university must assume full responsibility for staff funded through research grants including, without limitation, their terms and conditions of employment and training and supervision, arising from the employer-employee relationship."

If you are in a department with Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council members, there may be funding for things such as attendance at conferences, she says. "The Referee Incentives Scheme aims to reward the role played by academic referees by making annual pay-ments to academic institutions, reflecting the efforts of their staff in refereeing at the request of the EPSRC. Heads of department are free to use the grants for any purpose that would be an admissible cost on an EPSRC research grant (including conference attendance)."

She adds: "You may wish to consider external sources. For example, the Royal Society has a conference grants scheme that 'supports UK-based scientists to either present their own paper-poster or to chair a session at an overseas conference, where conference participation is the main or sole purpose of the visit'."

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.

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