Ask the panel

April 14, 2006

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

Having held several research contracts at one university, I have recently been moved on to an open-ended contract. Despite this, my salary is still paid out of soft money; not a single grant, but my research group's slush fund. I am pregnant and wish to take six months' maternity leave. How do I know if I am eligible for the university's relatively generous maternity package or simply statutory pay? How can I ensure that I am not made redundant during my maternity leave if the slush fund runs out?

* Our Natfhe panellist says: "If the university has given you a contract of employment, then you are an employee, and it has an obligation to pay your salary. Where the money comes from is irrelevant. You also have an absolute right to statutory maternity pay, which is available from Day 1 of employment.

"Whether you are entitled to the more generous maternity package depends on several things. Does the university specify a period of time that a woman has to have been employed by it before she can benefit? It will probably come down to whether the university was your employer while you were on research contracts. If the maternity package does not specify any length of employment, you will be eligible for it."

He adds: "Employers need to exercise extreme care to show that they are not discriminating on the grounds of pregnancy, especially since October 2005, when changes to the Sex Discrimination Act made it clear that 'less favourable treatment' leave constitutes discrimination. The university would have to have solid grounds for dismissing you while you were pregnant - for example that you had committed a major criminal act that impinged on your work or that there was an absolute redundancy with no possibility of finding alternative work. Saying that an external funding source had run out is unlikely to be sufficient grounds to make a pregnant woman redundant."

* Our Association of University Teachers panellist says: "The maternity provisions that apply to you should be specified in your contract, but the funding arrangements or contractual status of your post should not affect the provisions available.

"Assuming you meet the qualifying criteria (which, unless you have had a break in service, you should do), you should be entitled to the university's maternity package. If you are offered statutory provisions only, seek advice from your union.

"If a redundancy situation arises while you are on maternity leave, the employer cannot select you for redundancy because you are on maternity leave, and you cannot be dismissed if the reason that the redundancy has arisen is because you are absent on maternity leave. If your post is made redundant, the employer must offer suitable alternative employment - even if the slush fund has run out or it appears to the university that it would be uneconomic to do so."

* The advice from the Equality Challenge Unit is: "If your contract states that you are eligible for enhanced maternity benefits, you should benefit from them. If this aspect of the contract is not clear, you should request a clarification of the university's position in writing from the human resources department.

"You should ask your line manager how long the post can be sustained through the slush fund and how it will be funded in the longer term. It would be unlawful to make you redundant during your maternity leave if the reason is solely because you are pregnant or have recently given birth."

* Our resident academic says: "As universities have only recently begun to implement the European fixed-term legislation, which is what has moved you on to an open-ended contract, most institutions are in the early stages of sorting out how to deal with situations such as yours. Because of this, you need to be proactive in clarifying your position as soon as possible."

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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