Ask the panel

April 27, 2007

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

'As the head of department, I receive an honorarium for the three years I am appointed to this role. Given that employment legislation discourages the use of temporary contracts for ongoing roles, should head positions be permanent appointments?'

* A spokesman for the Universities and Colleges Employers Association says: "Heads of departments are usually appointed on a temporary basis in pre-92 universities (although these tend to be permanent appointments in post-92 universities). This arrangement enables academics to gain valuable management experience for a temporary period while allowing them to return to their research and other academic duties after the three years.

"Appointments that are rotational (an individual undertakes them for a temporary period before returning to a permanent post) would be considered objectively justifiable under the fixed-term regulations."

* A spokesman for the University and College Union says: "Employment legislation does discourage the use of temporary contracts for ongoing roles. For example, the Fixed Term Employees Regulations 2002 limit the use of fixed-term contracts to four years of service and two or more contracts.

This is the case unless there is 'objective justification' that provides a compelling reason why the contract could not be considered as ongoing.

"The role of head of department is not normally considered applicable to this situation, as most academics filling this role will return to their usual role when their leadership duties are concluded.

"You mention that you receive an honorarium for the role of head of department. If this is an additional payment in recognition of the responsibilities associated with the role, this demonstrates that your core duties are those from your ongoing post, and therefore the limits on the use of temporary contracts would not apply to this situation. If you need clarification on this case, you should contact your local UCU branch or human resources department.

"The rotating head of department promotes shared leadership among the academic team in a department while maintaining accountability for decision-making. The cyclical nature of the appointment is also often seen as useful for the renewal of academic departments while retaining the experience and knowledge of established staff.

"Allocating head of department roles permanently would be on the basis of departmental organisation rather than a requirement fostered by employment legislation."

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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