Ask the panel

December 1, 2006

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

After working full time as a lecturer since 2001, I took a year's maternity leave and returned to work part time. I have a book due out after the research assessment exercise cut-off date but only three journal articles. I am applying for full-time jobs but adverts ask for a 'full contribution' to the RAE. I have been told verbally that I do not meet this criteria. Is this indirect discrimination?

* Our panellist from the Universities and Colleges Employers' Association says: "Institutions should always ensure that any advertisements do not indirectly discriminate against potential applicants. But they are entitled to set a minimum standard that is required for the advertised position.

"The guidance for submissions to the research assessment exercise 2008, issued to all institutions in 2005 (www.rae.ac.uk/pubs/2005/03/rae0305.doc), states that institutions should take account of particular circumstances that may have affected an individual's research output during the assessment period. These include absence due to maternity/ adoption leave. Therefore, if your institution has confirmed that you will not be included in the RAE submission, as you have implied, this suggests that there may be reasons unconnected to your maternity leave.

"I would recommend that you discuss the reason why you have not been submitted with your head of department, and then consider what approach to take with your job search."

* Our panellist from the University and College Union says: "Indirect sex discrimination arises when the employer imposes a provision, criterion or practice that would put women (or men) at a disadvantage compared with men (or women).

"The UCU raised the issue of sex discrimination within the research assessment exercise and lobbied hard for change. In April 2000, Helen Mercer, an Association of University Teachers member, successfully claimed indirect discrimination in relation to the RAE at a tribunal. This case, along with intensive lobbying from the UCU and others, led to changes.

"The new rules for RAE 2008 are supposed to protect against direct and indirect forms of discrimination. For example, institutions and panels should take into account individual circumstances that can impact on research productivity. These include absence due to maternity/adoption leave, ill health or injury, disability or part-time working. Institutions have been issued with guidance from the funding bodies on discrimination and the RAE process.

"Clearly, job adverts should reflect the changed nature of the RAE rules and not reproduce indirect forms of discrimination. In doing so, the advertisers are opening themselves up to claims of indirect sex discrimination. You should talk to your trade union representative - they can provide advice and legal support."

* Our panellist from the Equality Challenge Unit says: "Institutions are encouraged to use information on individual staff circumstances to inform the RAE's subpanels about anything that has affected an individual's contribution.

"Most of the panel criteria statements are quite specific about what the panels will accept. For example, 'While the subpanel will consider each case on its own terms, it will normally expect and accept two outputs to take account of the circumstances described in paragraph 39 (equalities areas) of the generic statement' (UoA1 Cardiovascular Medicine).

"The equality principles that underlie these criteria should be applied to advertisements. You could contact he human resources department and/or equality officer of the university you spoke to and tell them that their interpretation of a 'full contribution' is probably indirectly discriminatory.

"This could lead to a review of practice informed, possibly, by the legal opinion of the university's solicitors."

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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