Ask the panel

June 15, 2007

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

'Are there guidelines on what exactly constitutes an academic's duties? Does attending degree ceremonies, departmental and fundraising dinners and the like count as part of the workload? Can one opt out?'

* A pro vice-chancellor writes: "Unlike many European university systems, we do not have precise number of working hours for academics, nor are we completely clear about the boundaries between compulsory duties and other forms of role.

"Perhaps because of the lack of clarity, some institutions are now drafting documentation that establishes aspirations and values for a university community, although this has no formal status in employment law.

"What is important is that the demands and needs of students have changed. Students now expect more from their lecturers. In recent years we have seen the Quality Assurance Agency lay down a code of practice for postgraduate supervision, which establishes, for example, some ground rules for contact and assistance.

"The degree ceremony, like the welcome meetings for new students and open days, is an important aspect of the student community. Academics should bear that in mind before refusing to participate. Similarly, taking part in reviews is a collegial act, and should be seen as such. If academics balk at certain kinds of voluntary involvement with the university community, it undermines collegiality and paves the way for more draconian top-down institutionalised thinking in the future.

"As for fundraising, the Government has made it clear that if universities do not do more to raise money, they will suffer. Helping with fundraising by going to the odd social event may even help ensure that fees imposed on students do not rise too astronomically."

* A spokesman for the University and College Union says: "Academic staff attendance at events such as degree ceremonies is usually a matter of professional goodwill rather than a contractual obligation. Very few institutions have formal guidance on these matters, though most have established some form of 'custom and practice' regarding attendance.

"Because of their non-contractual nature, it is not compulsory for academic staff to attend, though many continue to do so out of professional commitment.

"It is becoming difficult for academics to attend non-contractual events because of their increasing teaching, research and administrative duties.

The UCU believes that universities should concentrate on reducing staff workloads rather than putting inappropriate pressure on academics to attend non-contractual events."

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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