The Association of University Teachers has hit out at new government regulations for failing to protect academics from excessive workloads.
The working time directive, which will come into force on October 1, is designed to ensure staff will not have to work more than an average 48 hours a week.
"There are certain categories of professionals that are excluded from the directive; we have been told that academics are one," said Adrienne Aziz, assistant secretary general of the AUT.
A national agreement limits the number of contact teaching hours in new universities to 550 a year. But lecturers also spend time on research, administration, preparation and student support, which are not covered by an agreement. Similarly, academics in older universities do not have contracts stating working hours, also leaving them outside the directive.
This means academics could be required to work unreasonable hours, according to Ms Aziz. "This legislation doesn't define what is reasonable," she said.
A recent AUT survey found the average working week for academics, in and out of term-time, was about 53 hours and a high proportion of academic staff suffer from severe stress.
The regulations also contain a clause protecting employees from discrimination if they refuse to work longer hours. But Ms Aziz doubts it will be enforceable in academia. In a company, it would be obvious if someone worked fewer hours than colleagues and then failed to gain promotion. But in academia, there is no comparable standard working week.
Moreover, more than half of the members of the AUT are on fixed-term contracts. "They have to put in the hours to get their contracts renewed," Ms Aziz said.
But the AUT is against limiting the number of hours academics work. "Many AUT members value very highly the fact their time is not measured and controlled. But that does not mean that it is impossible to quantify the likely workload arising from contractual and opposed to voluntary work," said a spokesperson.
The directive also sets out the minimum number of holidays: 15 days' paid annual leave for full-time workers with a pro rata entitlement for part-timers.