Short-term jobs battle

May 15, 1998

MARTIN Cloonan is to be commended for seeking to protect employees' rights (THES, May 8), but there is surely a duty on university employers and others to protect taxpayers' and donors' right to know that their money is not being spent unnecessarily or inappropriately.

It is not a change of government that can change the glut of fixed-term contracts but a change in legislation that prevents short-term funded staff from normally being employed on any other basis.

Considerable sums of money from both government and grant-giving bodies are at the disposal of large universities, which can switch funds from one account to another. This is not the case with smaller institutions, particularly medical schools, where research funds are for specific projects.

People taking a research post are normally specialists and not so able to transfer when the project ends. Therefore their chances of redundancy are high. This is a risk that they have to take and most are prepared to do so, but few grant-giving bodies are willing for their funds to be spent on redundancy pay and it is surely wrong for taxpayers' money to be used in this way when the post has been funded from other sources.

It is not unknown for research grants to be "top-sliced" to provide a contingency fund from which redundancy pay can be met, but is this possible use of their money known to those who subscribe to a charity in the first place? I doubt it.

Mr Cloonan writes of waiver clauses. Again, their use is the only mechanism available for preventing inappropriate expenditure.

Under present legislation non-renewal of a fixed-term contract amounts to dismissal and the employer is open to a claim of "unfair dismissal". Defence of such a claim costs money, which neither taxpayer nor grant donor should have to meet if steps can be taken to avoid it at the outset.

As long as the present legal situation persists, it is not surprising that the number of staff on fixed-term contracts is rising when funding is increasingly insecure. Perhaps the AUT should concentrate on seeking a change in the employment legislation to permit a more flexible and fairer way of satisfying the interests and intentions of all involved.

James Bowen, J. L. Bowen Consultancy Ltd, Northwood, Middlesex.

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