Ask the panel

June 16, 2006

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

I have been employed for more than four years on fixed-term contracts, but my university has not yet told me if my post will become permanent in July under the fixed-term employee regulations. Please can the panel tell me what I should do?

* Our panellist from Research Councils UK says: "The regulations state that if you have been continuously employed on fixed-term contracts for four years or more, and are being re-engaged on a fixed-term contract without continuity being broken, the new contract is viewed as a permanent one under the law unless the renewal on a fixed-term basis was objectively justified.

"If you want confirmation of whether your contract is permanent, write to your employer to request a state-ment. You are entitled to a reply within 21 days."

She adds: "As a more general issue, RCUK is conscious of the key role played by universities as employers of researchers (through their attitudes to research staff and their personnel policies). The research councils want to ensure that our policies do not inhibit a change of approach either by universities or in our own institutes and units.

"Research grant conditions state that 'the research organisation must assume full responsibility for staff funded from the grant and, in consequence, accept all duties owed to and responsibilities for these staff, including, without limitation, their terms and conditions of employment and their training and supervision, arising from the employer/ employee relationship'.

"Adoption of the new conditions in effect removes restrictions on contract length in some individual councils' conditions. (The revised conditions can be found at www.pparc.ac.uk/ jes/TCfECFinal.pdf) "Evidence is emerging that key research-led universities plan to make less use of short-term contracts. For example, Bristol University guidance states that 'the university management believes firmly that fixed-term contracts should not be used unless absolutely necessary'."

Finally, she says: "RCUK also recognises that the move away from fixed-term contracts is part of the wider issue of sustainability of the UK research base depending, as it does, on the flow of people into and the management of research careers."

* Our panellist from the University and College Union says: "Whether or not your post will be regarded as permanent in law after July 10 will depend on whether or not the employer can objectively justify the use of the fixed-term contract (your question implies that you have had at least two contracts and have more than four years' service - also qualifying criteria). This will depend on the facts of your case. But if your employer does not tell you whether or not they intend to put you on a permanent contract, then on July 10 (or after) you should write to them asking them to confirm that your post is now permanent."

She adds: "Your trade union will be able to help with this.

This is a legal provision under the fixed-term regulations. The employer must reply within 21 days either confirming that your post is permanent or giving reasons why it remains fixed term.

"If you do not agree with those reasons, then you can ultimately apply to the employment tribunal to make a decision. Before taking such action, however, contact your trade union for advice."

* Our panellist from the Universities and Colleges Employers' Association says: "There is no specific requirement for your employer to write to you to confirm that your fixed-term post has become permanent.

"Your post will become permanent automatically on July 10 if you have been employed on successive fixed-term contracts for four years or more by this date and there is no objective reason for your employer to renew your fixed-term contract.

"But if you would like written confirmation that you will have permanent contractual status, you can write to your employer with this request."

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