Ask the panel

March 9, 2007

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

'I am employed as a research assistant and my contract runs out at the end of September. I was told by the head of my department that my job would be readvertised, asking for candidates working in a field different from mine. However, that advert states only a preference for other fields, saying that strong applicants with expertise in other areas, presumably including mine, will also be accepted. I have never been told the reasons for the non-renewal of my contract. I presume it is for reasons of redundancy, although my performance has never been criticised. Contract staff were excluded from a recent annual review. Would it be reasonable to ask to be considered for the post? A colleague said that the department head told him that a line in the advert stating that candidates should be able to offer new research directions was inserted specifically to disqualify us from these new positions.'

* Our panellist from the University and College Union says: "If you have been informed that your fixed-term contract will not be renewed you have a right to be told the reason why. If the reason given is that your post is redundant, this must be a genuine redundancy to be lawful. A redundancy occurs when an employer ceases, or intends to cease, to carry on the business that the employee was engaged to conduct, or if there is a reduction or diminution of the requirement to carry out work of a particular kind. If your employer is in the process of advertising your current post, this is questionable. Contact your local UCU branch for advice.

"It is concerning that annual reviews were conducted for all staff, but excluded contract research staff. Contract research staff are covered by the Fixed-Term Employees (Prevention of Less Favourable Treatment) Regulations 2002, which are meant to prevent less favourable treatment on the grounds of contractual status. If you have suffered as a result of not receiving an annualreview, the univer-sity may be in breach of these regulations. This could affect many of your colleagues and could be raised collectively through your trade union.

"Even if your employer can demonstrate that your post is redundant, they still have important obligations. If this is one of many redundancies, they may have an obligation to consult with trade unions as well as with you individually to inform you of the reasons for the redundancy and ways to mitigate its effects, by, for example, providing suitable alternative work (that is, work not substantially different from your current post) if available. It would therefore be reasonable to ask to be considered for the post; if the university refused to consider you, they could be failing to fulfil their statutory duties."

* Our panellist at the Universities and Colleges Employers Association says: "As far as your fixed-term contract is concerned, it would be advisable to establish clearly why your contract has not been renewed by speaking to your employer.

"You should begin by finding out if your institution has a policy regarding fixed-term contracts and the usual procedure for ending such a contract.

"As the non-renewal of a fixed-term contract would be considered a dismissal in law, it is a statutory requirement for your institution to write to you setting out the reasons for not renewing your contract, and to invite you to a meeting to discuss their intention to end it. If you have not been sent a letter or been invited to a meeting, you should request these as soon as possible.

"With regards to the job vacancy, get the job description and person specification for the post so you can ask your manager informed questions."

This advice panel includes the University and College Union 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

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