Ask the panel

June 2, 2006

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

I am an hourly paid lecturer at three universities - for three hours a week at each one. Does this affect my right to a permanent contract under the fixed-term employee regulations?

Our panellist from the Association of University Teachers says: "Your right to a permanent contract under the fixed-term employee regulations depends on three things: you must be on at least your second contract or have had your contract renewed; you must have at least four years' continuous service (from July 10, 2002); and there must be no objective justification for the use of a fixed-term contract.

"The number of hours that you work and the fact that you work for a number of employers will not affect your right to a permanent contract. But you need to look at each contract individually. So if you meet these criteria in relation to each university, you will be entitled to a permanent contract at that university. Seek advice from your union on how to go about asserting your rights to a permanent contract in each university."

* Our panellist from the Universities and Colleges Employers' Association says: "The right to a permanent contract is not dependent on the number of hours a week you work at a university. Your employer could transfer you to a fractional or hourly paid permanent contract even if you work for only three hours a week, unless there is a justifiable objective reason to keep you on a fixed-term contract."

He adds: "The Joint Negotiating Committee for Higher Education Staff Guidance on Fixed-Term and Casual Employment, agreed by Ucea and the trade unions, provides examples of objective reasons for continuing a fixed-term contract. These include factors such as the purpose of the post - for instance, is it to cover staff absence or to provide specialist input in the short term? Is student or other business demand uncertain? Is there a reasonably foreseeable prospect of short-term funding being renewed or other external or internal funding being available or becoming available?"

* Our panellist from lecturers' union Natfhe confirms: "The number of hours you work does not affect your rights as an hourly paid or fixed-term worker. If you have four years' continuous service from July 2002 and are on your second contract, you can assume that you have a right to a permanent contract unless there is 'objective justification' for not offering you one. Your employers might argue that such objective justification could include, for example, serious uncertainty about future funding or where the post provides maternity or sick leave cover (though that doesn't mean that any of these would necessarily be an acceptable argument). What is not an objective justification is the fact that your hours are low or that you have more than one employer."

He adds: "There is helpful guidance from Jnches, which gives more details of your statutory rights, good practice and such objective justifications. It can be found at www.natfhe.org  or on the Ucea website www.ucea.ac.uk .

"If any or all of your employers suggest that although you meet the four-year rule you are not entitled to a permanent contract, you should ask in writing for an explanation. If one is not provided, you should ask your union representative for advice. If you receive a response, you may need to further clarify and then again ask your union representative to intervene.

There are likely to be others in the same position, so the union ought to be able to to take up the issue collectively. A collective grievance drawing attention to your rights under the fixed-term employees regulations ought to wake up your management - especially if your representatives imply that legal action might follow if statutory or contractual rights are breached. Make sure you keep duplicates of your letters and copy them to your representative.

"You will need to ensure that you write fairly quickly once you are told you are to be denied a permanent job to ensure any grievance that follows is well within any tribunal time limits."

This is the last time the Association of University Teachers and Natfhe answer separately. In future, the University and College Union will supply answers.

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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