My employer is holding me to ransom for RAE

July 6, 2007

Read the small print in your contract, warns Robert Cook. You may not be free to move as easily as you thought

In May I was appointed to a chair at Sussex University. No need for congratulations - people move all the time in British academe. Or so I thought when I went to inform my head of department. But instead of the expected "thanks for all your hard work over the years" (17 in my case) I was informed that the vice-chancellor would not allow me to leave my post at Sheffield University until October 31 and that I would be sued for breach of contract if I did.

Eagle-eyed readers will spot immediately the significance of this date. We are now entering the final months of the current research assessment exercise. At the close of this calendar year, specialist RAE panels will pass judgment on every individual entered for the exercise by their employers (defined as an individual's host institution as of October 31).

In other words, my current employer was, and remains, adamant that it is within its rights to protect its interests by locking me in until it receives the projected benefit from my RAE submission.

How is this possible? Did not Chief Justice Mansfield, as long ago as 1772, administer the deathblow to slavery in England? Indeed he did, but Sheffield University is insisting on a clause in my contract, which requires departing staff to submit their resignations three months before the end of a semester. Circumstances meant that I missed the resignation deadline in the second week of March.

I'm now a virtual prisoner of the outgoing vice-chancellor and his dismally named department of human resources, which boasts risibly on its website about its desire for all staff "to be proud of working for the university and to feel a strong sense of belonging and commitment".

It's a frustrating and depressing situation. I've been "thingified" (as Martin Luther King would have put it) by a management team apparently oblivious to the distress that its actions are causing.

Matters might be slightly less irksome were I being treated like any other person who failed to resign "in time". But this isn't the case. A number of individuals in the same situation as me have been allowed to leave, including those whose RAE submissions can be claimed by Sheffield by dint of bilateral negotiations with other institutions both at home and abroad.

Can nothing be done? Well, a legal expert from the University and College Union declined to proffer any practical assistance (which makes me wonder why I bother to pay my not-inconsiderable dues). The vice-chancellor has not responded to personal communications, and the head of human resources unhelpfully parrots the university's policy on leave.

My solicitor's counsel was more useful (if costly), yet I remain unclear how my transfer to Sussex will be accomplished at the beginning of September. How, for example, will I get paid by my new employer if I don't receive a P45 from Sheffield? And all this because I managed to produce a few publications for the RAE and failed to resign in time to avoid being corralled.

Rumours abound that individuals at other UK universities are in my position. I'm certainly not the only one at Sheffield; those of whom I'm aware share my feelings about the shabby way in which we are being treated.

If no solution to this ridiculous impasse is found by the end of August I'll take the only way out possible: walk away and confront the possibility of legal action.

I've no idea what effect this action will have on ownership of my RAE return. The panels themselves don't have a policy on how to deal with contested returns. For, even if I do regard myself as a Sussex University employee on September 1, it seems pretty clear that Sheffield University will continue to claim ownership of my own submission until the October cut-off date.

It is a common experience among British academics that universities today are run as businesses rather than seats of learning. While this may be true of many higher education institutions, the rather desperate attempts of my own employer to prevent a handful of staff from leaving appear more redolent of outmoded restrictive practices than modern-day labour relations.

If the current management is anything to go by, it seems unlikely that Sheffield will be run along less fiscally driven lines in the immediate future.

However, it is surely not too much to hope that a change of regime will render it a more humane workplace for its hard-working staff.

Robert Cook is professor of American history at Sheffield University.

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