Ask the panel

March 31, 2006

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

I was employed by a Russell Group university on a 0.5 contract. I lost much of my work when, without warning, the university took on ten new members of staff ahead of the last research assessment exercise. Supported by the Association of University Teachers, I submitted a grievance in November 2001, which has still not been resolved satisfactorily. Letters to the secretary go unanswered, and it is only pressure from me that has advanced the complaint. My last letter was dated September 2003, and I still await a reply. Is there a body I can complain to about an academic employer that fails so markedly to operate its own procedures?

* Our panellist from the Association of University Teachers says: "The grievance procedure to be followed in chartered institutions is laid down in the university's statutes.

"Until recently, if the university failed to follow its own statutory procedures, then you could make a complaint to the visitor (an external person appointed to the institution on behalf of the Crown) who would have been able to instruct the university to set up a grievance committee to hear your complaint.

"However, the powers of the visitor to hear such complaints were removed in the Higher Education Act 2004. During the passage of the Act, the AUT campaigned for a sector-wide external body to hear employee complaints, similar to the provisions made to hear student complaints. Despite our best efforts, however, nothing was put in place to replace the visitor, and that remains the current position.

"The universities, through Universities UK, did undertake to work with interested parties to determine an alternative approach for an independent mechanism for dealing with appropriate staff complaints, including those previously covered by the visitor but, to date, no progress has been made.

"If the university is simply failing to follow its own procedures in relation to your grievance, you should write to the vice-chancellor or the chair of council. As the AUT supported your original case, you should contact the union to see how it can help progress the case - it may be possible to do this through your joint negotiating committee."

* Our respondent from Natfhe says: "If the university's grievance procedure forms part of your contract of employment, you may have a case for a breach of contract and, depending on the issue at the heart of the grievance, you may be able to take your case to an employment tribunal.

"However, there are strict time limits and requirements for certain procedures to have been followed for most tribunal cases, so you would need to discuss your case with your trade union or legal representative.

"The university's grievance procedure will have been agreed with the recognised trade union and, at a minimum, should have followed the guidance issued by the arbitration service Acas, whose guidance can be taken into account in any tribunal case arising from your grievance. It will almost certainly include time limits on each stage of procedure, which have been broken.

"So, as well as following the specific procedures for chartered institutions laid down in the university's statutes, you should approach your local union representative to pursue the reasons for failure to follow the university's own grievance procedure. However, to avoid a wasteful rehearing with your local manager of the original matter, the issue should be raised directly by your union representative (assuming you had their original support) with the vice-chancellor.

"What seems to have happened looks suspiciously like an abuse of process, and there may be other similar issues your local union association might want to pick up."

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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