Lecturers fall into benefit trap

August 14, 1998

CONTRACT staff are being caught in a benefits trap because of some universities' use of waiver clauses.

Under these clauses, employees on fixed-term contracts waive their rights to claim unfair dismissal or redundancy compensation. But the clauses are valid only if the contract is for at least one year. This means some universities opt to employ hourly-paid lecturers on an annual contract, even though they will not have work over the summer and may be left without an income during these months.

One lecturer at a London college is appealing to the Benefits Agency after being refused the Jobseekers' Allowance over the summer break.

His benefits office argued he was not eligible for help because his contract at Goldsmiths College was for a year, even though he was paid by the hour and received his last pay cheque in May. He will not be paid again until September.

The college said it sympathised but refused to end his contract earlier. The lecturer has been employed for the past three years at the college to work a maximum 180 hours on yearly fixed-term contracts, paid Pounds 26.30 per hour.

He has only discovered the problem this year because the first year he found a job over the summer and the second year the benefits office did not spot the anomaly.

"I would never have signed this contract last year if I had known," he said. "I am pursuing the appeal on the benefits front but my worry is the appeal will fail and hundreds of other people could be affected."

Rob Letham, head of personnel at Goldsmiths College, said the college needed contracts with waiver clauses to allow for flexibility.

"We understand the problem but a lecturer's relationship with the Benefits Agency is one we cannot control," he said.

A spokesman for the Benefits Agency said a lecturer in this position would not be entitled to benefit because his proof of employment would show he was employed for the full year. He said the hourly rate should take account of this.

Tom Wilson, assistant general secretary of the Association of University Teachers, said: "We think it is outrageous for someone to be employed but not paid, and we think it is outrageous for the benefits office not to pay benefits."

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