Ask the panel

June 30, 2006

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

I work on a research project that is funded through a research council grant. Although this is my third such project, the funding from the research council is for a fixed period. How can the university give me a permanent post under the fixed-term employee regulations due to come into force early next month?

* Our panellist from Research Councils UK says: "The research councils would not expect the fixed-term nature of a grant to be, in itself, sufficient to justify a fixed-term contract. The question is less about whether the organisation can issue an open-ended contract than whether it could justify doing otherwise.

"You have been employed in three successive posts, so there must be an ongoing programme of research. This might have a bearing on consideration of whether there is an objective reason for continued use of a fixed-term contract, as the factors to be taken into account include: the purpose of the funding - general purpose/ part of a large rolling programme grant or for a specific short-term project; and the nature of the work - specific and time-limited project or an open-ended task that is part of the core function."

She adds: "Researchers regularly report that fixed-term contracts create high levels of insecurity; principal investigators tell of project delays through recruitment difficulties and their researchers leaving early to find their next contract. RCUK 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 management of, research careers."

* Our panellist from the University and College Union 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 previously renewed; you must have four years' continuous service with the same employer; and the university must have objective reasons if it wishes to keep you on a fixed-term contract.

"Objective grounds are not defined. But the UCU does not accept that your post meets the test for objective grounds simply because it is linked to fixed-term research council funding. Research rarely finishes just because one funding stream ends. Even if funding for the particular project you are working on eventually finishes you are likely to have the knowledge and skills that would allow you to work in other areas. The assumption that an individual post is intrinsically linked to an individually funded project is one that we must challenge.

"Research resources would be far better employed if institutions were able to look strategically at overall levels of funding and staffing - not on a project-by-project basis. Plenty of posts are funded, at least to a degree, through fixed-term funding but not all posts are fixed term. The real question is: why wouldn't your employer put you on a permanent contract?"

* Our Universities and Colleges Employers' Association panellist says: "The Fixed Term Employees Regulations (Prevention of Less Favourable Treatment) came into force in October 2002. They provide that a fixed-term contract that is renewed or extended will become permanent automatically after four continuous years starting from July 10, 2002, unless a fixed term can be justified. Thus employees' rights under this rule can arise from July 10, 2006. Examples of objective reasons for renewing a fixed-term contract are not given in the regulations.

But the Joint Negotiating Committee for Higher Education Staff guidance on fixed-term and casual employment (see www.ucea.ac.uk), jointly agreed by Ucea and the trade unions in June 2002, provides examples of objective reasons for continuing a fixed-term contract, including where there is no reasonably foreseeable prospect of short-term funding being renewed nor other external or internal funding being or becoming available. Your particular situation would need to be considered by your employer."

This advice panel includes the University and College Union, 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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