Ask the panel

January 26, 2007

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

I am increasingly working into the evening and weekends to keep up with my workload. I feel under particular pressure to meet the expectations of my students. I am always prompt to answer their e-mails. However, one recently complained that an e-mail sent on Friday was not answered until Monday. Our department did poorly in the last National Student Survey and my head of department, instead of telling the student that a wait until Monday was perfectly acceptable, has asked me to be more prompt in responding. I am furious and feel undermined. Can the department insist that student e-mails be answered over the weekend?

* Our panellist from the University and College Union says:

"Workload issues are a major cause of stress for those working in higher education, and I suspect that you have many colleagues who are also under increasing and unacceptable workload pressures.

"The head of department has a duty of care to you. Indeed, you have a duty of care to yourself under Section 7 of the Health and Safety at Work Act. If you have an excessive workload, you should start monitoring what you do and how long you do it. If your working hours are well in excess of a reasonable level - and in post-92 institutions it should be relatively straightforward to establish that due to the national contract - you need to draw it to the attention of your local trade union representative and establish if others are in the same position (they usually are). In a pre-92 institution, the same principles apply, but there is not a national contract to use as a template for controlling working hours."

She adds: "You should then (ideally as a group) try to identify why you are working excessive hours - too much teaching, research demands, administration, student support, other work responsibilities and so on.

"Once you have evidence that you are working flat out, it should be much easier to say that if your head of department wants student e-mails answered more promptly (at any time), he or she should spell out what they want you to stop doing, or delay doing."

She concludes: "As for responding over weekends, some staff may choose to do this, but you are not obliged to work weekends. If the head of department insists, then not only are there potential contractual and health and safety issues but also issues of work-life balance that may be in breach of the university's policy. You should make it clear to your manager that their actions were unacceptable and that you regard their expectations for you to work at weekends as unreasonable. If these demands continue, keep notes and speak to your union representative about what you can do."

Our panellist from the Universities and Colleges Employers' Association says: "From what you have said, the general perception of your department by students is unfavourable, and your head of department is obviously highly concerned about improving this and limiting the level of student complaints. It may be that he or she is unaware of the fact that you have a good record of dealing promptly with students' e-mails. This, together with the disappointing results from the National Student Survey, has triggered an ill-informed reaction to the student's complaint. It is also clear from what you have said that you have concerns about your workload.

"I would suggest that you arrange to meet your head of department to discuss protocol, your workload, the student's complaint and general e-mail correspondence timescales.

"Hopefully, your head of department will be better informed and reconsider the reaction to the complaint, and you will be able to agree on an acceptable way forward."

This advice panel includes the Association of University Teachers, Natfhe, the Universities and Colleges Employers' Association, Research Councils UK 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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