Ask the panel

August 24, 2007

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

'Having completed my BSc as a mature student, I am keen to pursue an academic career. I am now beginning to apply for PhD studentships. I am also considering starting a family fairly soon. If I did have a baby, how would it affect my studentship? How is maternity leave provided during PhD studentships, and who funds it?'

* A spokesperson for the Equality Challenge Unit says: "As a PhD student, you are unlikely to be the employee of either the research-funding body or the research institution that hosts you, in which case you will not be entitled to statutory maternity pay.

"However, there will be some provision made for maternity leave and pay by your research-funding body or your host institution, though the nature of those arrangements may vary considerably depending on the source of your funding and the institution or research organisation at which you undertake your PhD.

"The UK research councils recommend that research organisations treat their PhD students in the same way as they treat employees with respect to maternity leave and pay. They state that funds within an institution's training grants should be sufficient to cover maternity pay and provide a corresponding extension to the grant.

"Independent funding bodies may take a similar approach. The Wellcome Trust, for example, asks research institutions to treat trust-funded PhD students in accordance with their policy for staff (for example, research fellows) funded by the trust.

"However, as PhD students are not employees, there is no legal obligation for institutions to do this. This means that if the institution does not have a policy of funding maternity leave for PhD students, no support may be provided.

"It will ultimately be at the discretion of the institution whether or not it provides cover, and if it does not, the student may have to fall back on maternity allowance benefits.

"The research councils' best-practice recommendations are to provide maternity leave and pay in line with statutory maternity provision. At present, however, it is more common for higher education institutions to offer four months' paid maternity leave, with or without a corresponding extension to the grant.

"Institutions may also permit suspension of study for a period of up to 12 months. A student who doesn't return to her studies may be liable to repay any sum received as maternity pay.

"Owing to these many variables, it would be advisable to research the guidelines for maternity provision issued by the body funding your chosen scholarship, as well as the maternity policy for PhD students operating at the institution(s) at which you are considering studying.

"If you are already in receipt of a grant and you become pregnant, it may be a good idea to speak to the human resources department and equal opportunities advisers, as well as the research administrator at your institution, before approaching your supervisor."

* Gillian Evans, project leader of Improving Dispute Resolution ( www.staffs.ac.uk/idr ), says: "A PhD studentship is not normally an employment, though sometimes students are also employed by the university - for example, to do some teaching or in part-time laboratory posts. So maternity leave is not really what you are asking about.

"If you become pregnant while you are studying, you should first decide whether you want to take time off from your research to have the baby. You will then need to discuss with the university whether it will waive the fees for the terms you take off and allow you to finish your thesis late.

"Universities are under considerable pressure from the funding bodies to keep up the completion rate for their research students, so it would be sensible to discuss this possibility now. It is not a problem affecting only mature students, after all."

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 advicepanel@thes.co.uk

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