Maternity deals range from four to 26 weeks on full pay, with wide variations in eligibility, discovers Claire Sanders.
University staff who plan to start families would be well advised to choose their university carefully, according to a union report that shows wide variation in maternity provision across the sector in the UK.
The University and College Union has just launched a major new database on pay and conditions at different universities, and it has used the data to produce an analysis of maternity conditions.
The information on the database, which was compiled from university websites, provides a snapshot of provision that reveals startling differences in paid leave and qualifying periods.
Manchester University emerges as one of the most generous, offering 26 weeks of fully paid leave. And, like a growing number of universities, it sees employment conditions as part of what it takes to beat the opposition to the best staff in a competitive jobs market.
Cambridge University also comes out well, offering 18 weeks of fully paid leave without a qualifying period.
Other institutions are far less generous. Greenwich and Bradford universities require women to work for 52 weeks to be eligible for their packages. Greenwich, Leeds Metropolitan and Westminster universities each offer four weeks on full pay, followed by 22 weeks at varying and rather complicated rates.
Westminster University has one of the most complicated packages on offer (see below).
Stephen Court, senior research officer at the UCU, said the union hoped to use the database to compile a number of surveys. "Our main goal is to seek out good practice and encourage other employers to raise their game, as well as highlighting institutions where conditions are poor," he said.
He pointed out that a degree of variation was to be expected given historical differences between universities. Non-pay conditions of employment in old universities, for example, have long been locally negotiated.
"With the implementation of the framework agreement, pay and grading structures now reflect a combination of nationally determined pay settlements, with local variations in pay and grading structures and market supplements," he added.
Karen Heaton, director of human resources at Manchester, said the university was aiming to become an "employer of choice". "We want to attract the best staff from all over the world into all levels of the university," she said.
The human resources strategy is a key element of the Manchester 2015 agenda, she added, which aims to make the institution one of the top 25 universities in the world by 2015. "I have just joined Manchester after working in the public and private sectors, and this is by far the best package I have ever seen," she said.
Cambridge confirmed that it too provided family-friendly and maternity benefits well beyond statutory requirements. "This is one example of the way in which the university is committed to the delivery of its equality and diversity agenda," a spokesperson said.
Greenwich University said that it was constantly reviewing its terms and conditions. Bridget Leach, secretary of the UCU co-ordinating committee, said: "The university has recently convened a work-life balance working party, and we are optimistic that it will improve practices here."
A spokesman for Westminster, which is headed by Geoffrey Copland, former chair of the Universities and Colleges Employers Association, said that its provision was in line with that offered by other modern universities. He said Westminster was reviewing policy in light of the Work and Families Act and would seek to simplify its scheme.
'I'M NOT SURE I'D HAVE COME BACK AFTER JUST SIX MONTHS'
Jo Kaiserman (pictured with her son Oscar) and Aline Miller both describe the maternity provision at Manchester University as "fantastic" even though it has meant very different experiences for each woman.
For Ms Kaiserman, a senior administrator in the humanities department, it meant six months off on full pay followed by six months unpaid.
"After a year, I was ready to return to work," she said. "If I had had to return after six months, I am not sure I would have done."
She had worked for the university for ten years. She said that the arrangements she reached meant that Manchester was able to hold on to her expertise.
For Dr Miller the story is different. "I head a research team in the chemical engineering department and simply could not afford to be out of circulation for six months," she said.
So she came to an arrangement with the university whereby she worked from home and continued to oversee the research programme and supervise students in the six months of her paid maternity leave.
"In the last three months, I came into the university for one day a week," she said.
"Sometimes I brought the baby with me. It was crucial to keep the research team going."
In return, the university allowed her some flexibility on her return to work.
"I came back after six months, but I have been able to recoup some of the time I gave to the research project in the first six months," she said.
She described such flexibility as vital. "It means that I can be submitted for the research assessment exercise as I have met all the criteria," she said.
"And I do not think my promotion prospects have been hit."
But she said that she would have to think seriously about having a second child. "Maternity leave and a research career require careful balancing," she said.
WHAT'S IN YOUR MATERNITY PACKAGE?
Staff get 26 weeks on full pay, then 26 weeks unpaid leave (if at least 26 weeks' service accrued by 15th week before due date). Plans to extend period of full pay to 39 weeks from April 2007.
Staff get maximum of 52 weeks' maternity leave regardless of length of service; 18 weeks on full pay, eight weeks on statutory maternity pay (SMP), if entitled, and up to 26 weeks' unpaid leave.
After 52 weeks of employment, staff get the equivalent of 16 weeks on full pay, which is usually six weeks on full pay and 20 weeks on half-pay, plus SMP up to a maximum of normal pay.
After 52 weeks of service, staff are entitled to four weeks on full pay, two weeks at 90 per cent of full pay, 12 weeks on half-pay plus SMP, and eight weeks on SMP.
After 26 weeks of employment, staff are entitled to four weeks at full pay, two weeks at 90 per cent of average earnings, 12 weeks at either half-pay plus the lower rate of SMP or average earnings (whichever is lower) and eight weeks at the lesser rate of SMP, or 90 per cent of average earnings (whichever is lower).
* All women are by law eligible for what is called ordinary maternity leave regardless of their length of service. This means they can take up to 26 weeks of unpaid maternity leave
* Once a woman has 26 weeks of continuous service with the same employer (in addition to some other conditions), she is entitled to statutory maternity pay for 26 weeks. This is paid to her employer by the state at 90 per cent of her normal average weekly pay for the first six weeks of the maternity leave. For the next 20 weeks, the benefit is subject to a weekly limit of £108.85 or 90 per cent of average earnings - whichever is less
* From April 2007, the Work and Families Act 2006 will extend from six to nine months the statutory maternity paid leave for employees
* Other legislation will remove qualifying criteria for any additional maternity leave, so that all mothers will be able to take up to one year off work
* A woman who is away from work on maternity leave enjoys some legal protection against sacking or rudundancy.
For more details go to www.dti.gov.uk/files/file18061.pdf