Fixed-term university staff ‘missing out’ on maternity provision

Women on fixed-term contracts in Russell Group universities less likely to return to work after maternity leave than permanent peers, study finds

May 25, 2022

Mothers on fixed-term contracts in leading UK universities are much less likely to return to work after maternity leave than those on permanent contracts and there is “huge variation” in maternity provision offered, which “could be contributing to the loss of women from academia”, researchers say.

The odds of employees on fixed-term contracts returning to work after maternity leave were 59 per cent lower than those for colleagues on open-ended contracts, concluded the study, based on data gathered through Freedom of Information requests to the 24 Russell Group institutions.

There was widespread variation in maternity provision between universities, with most operating policies that limited access to enhanced maternity pay for staff on temporary contracts, according to the study led by King’s College London, published in Gender, Work & Organization.

Given the increasing numbers of staff on fixed-term contracts in UK universities – now at 34 per cent of academic staff and 15 per cent of non-academic staff – this issue “affects a lot of people”, said corresponding author Joanna Davies, a research fellow at King’s.

The study found the continuous-service and return-to-work periods required to qualify staff for enhanced maternity pay ranged from zero to a year – typically 52 and 12 weeks, respectively.

“When you think about fixed-term workers who are typically on 12-month contracts or less, they move around a lot. You can see how that [maternity provision] is not very compatible with the nature of fixed-term work,” said Ms Davies.

But a “small number” of Russell Group universities did “offer policies that are favourable for fixed-term workers”, the study found.

Five Russell Group universities imposed no continuous-service period for staff to qualify for enhanced maternity pay; seven had no return-to-work requirement; three made “explicit promotion of redeployment obligations” – regulations which state that a woman on maternity leave facing redundancy should be offered a suitable alternative vacancy if one exists, without interview; and two did not limit financial support for staff facing redundancy while on maternity leave.

However, “no university offered all four of these conditions simultaneously”, found the study – suggesting women on fixed-term contracts face a complex and confusing picture.

The study concludes that its “preliminary data” suggest that “reliance on fixed-term contracts combined with inadequate maternity provision for fixed-term workers could be contributing to the loss of women from academia”.

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