Good of Fishel case could be in tighter contracts

March 3, 2000

A world with many types of university will have many types of academic - and a wide range of contracts between them.

The High Court judgment in the case of Simon Fishel shows that whatever future contracts say, there will need to be such contracts, they will need to be clear and they will have to be observed. In the era of the web and biotechnology, when academic innovations can generate serious money, informal understandings will not do.

The Fishel judgment stresses that employees are not forbidden to work outside their main employment. Dr Fishel was found culpable of breach of contract, not moonlighting. Nottingham satisfied the judge that he had breached his contract with his overseas work, and that this was "outside" work even though the university benefited from it. Both universities and individuals can gain from external work. It makes links to the outside world. It enriches intellectual activity. It provides much-needed revenue and a boost to poor pay. Nottingham itself has a useful precedent in its exploitation of magnetic resonance imaging, the proceeds of which it splits with the academics involved.

Following the Fishel judgment it will become usual for private research contracts and consultancies to be handled through universities or to form part of negotiations resulting in part-time contracts. Books, articles for the press and media appearances will probably continue to be disregarded, but textbooks are a hotter issue as these become multimedia packages capable of remote delivery. The Open University has long ensured that it holds full rights to the teaching materials its academic staff produce.

Here is an opportunity for academic unions to develop a new role. Clinging to the ideal of a uniform contract will risk increasing irrelevance. Providing individual advice to members would be a valuable service.

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