Ask the panel

July 21, 2006

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

I have been employed to teach by the same university for ten years but every year I have a new contract that runs from October to July. I have been reading about the fixed-term regulations and understand that they came into force on July 10. Will I be entitled to a permanent contract? I am very keen to be transferred to a permanent contract but I am worried that my employment will not be seen as continuous service.

The panel has received a whole series of questions on the fixed-term regulations that came into force on July 10. Answers will become clearer in the following months as universities and staff adjust to the changes. Unions are predicting a spate of tribunals as some staff seek to challenge their universities, although employers are confident that all will run smoothly.

* Our panellist from the University and College Union says: "Under Regulation 8 of the Fixed Term Employees (Prevention of Less Favourable Treatment) Regulations 2002, employees have the right to regard their post as permanent if they are on at least their second contract with the same employer or the contract has been previously renewed, the employee has at least four years' continuous service and the use of a fixed-term contract was not justified on objective grounds."

She goes on: "The first thing, therefore, to consider in your case is whether your pattern of work over the past ten years can be regarded as continuous employment. Your employer may have reached an agreement with the unions that breaks over holiday periods will not disrupt continuity of service or your own contract may specify this. Even if not, certain breaks in employment, defined in law, do not break continuity of service, including when an employee is absent from work due to a 'temporary cessation of work'."

She adds: "A decision in the House of Lords in the case of Ford v Warwickshire County Council held that a teacher employed on a series of fixed-term contracts for the academic year over eight years could regard their service as continuous. You should therefore be able to regard your service as continuous, but contact your union representative for further advice on this. The next thing to consider is whether there is an objective justification for the use of your fixed-term contract. Although there is no definition of objective justification it would be difficult for your employer, after ten years, to come up with a justified reason for the continued use of fixed-term contracts in your case. If you are not issued with a permanent contract in October, contact your union for advice."

* Our panellist from the Universities and Colleges Employers' Association , says: "From what you have said, it sounds as though you have been continuously employed by your university for ten years, as the periods where you do not undertake any duties, that is, August to September, are likely to be regarded as periods of temporary cessation of service rather than breaks in service."

But he also warns: "Continuous service is not the only factor that determines whether a fixed-term contract becomes permanent under the Fixed Term Employees Regulations. The reason for issuing the fixed-term contract is just as important. An employer can extend or renew a fixed-term contract if there is a good business reason for doing so, such as a situation where the student demand for a course can be demonstrated as particularly uncertain (for more examples of objective reasons for continuing a fixed-term contract, see the Joint Negotiating Committee for Higher Education Staff guidance jointly agreed by Ucea and the trade unions, available at www.ucea.ac.uk ). Obviously the particular circumstances of your case would need to be considered."

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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