Working with employers in the local area

September 15, 2006

Worried about your employment, maternity, pension rights? Send your questions to The Times Higher advice panel.

My university is keen to work with employers in the local area. I fully support this and feel it can lead to the development of interesting courses. But I have been working with one employer who is keen to have quite a lot of say on the curriculum. He keeps pressuring me to include elements that I do not believe contain sufficient academic content and rigour. He does not seem to understand that I have to guarantee quality. The other day he joked that I had better not fail any students after he had ploughed so much money into their fees and the course. I tried to raise these issues with my head of department, who did not want to know. I was told to 'keep an eye on things' and not to let anything 'get out of hand'. How can I protect myself?

* Our panellist from the Universities and Colleges Employers' Association says: "You are behaving responsibly. As in the case of internal courses, it is vital that academic and professional standards are maintained for services provided by the university to outside organisations - and you should make this clear to the client. That is the best way of protecting both yourself and the university.

"In this particular case, your head of department may feel that you are over-reacting to 'a bit of banter' by the company representative. From past experience, they may well be familiar with this situation and are proposing that you just ignore the banter and carry on with the work."

He adds: "If you really feel vulnerable, you could send your head of department a note recording your concerns and what action you would wish them to take.

"In all circumstances, always retain your professional integrity - at the end of the day, that is your best protection and this may turn out to be very useful experience for you."

* But our panellist from the University and College Union has a rather different take. She says: "It is imperative that any such collaboration does not interfere with academic standards. There should be a written agreement between your institution and the local employer that makes it very clear what the roles of each party are and that stipulates that it is the responsibility of the university to ensure academic standards are maintained.

"The level of attempted interference by the local employer with the academic content and standard of the course is clearly unacceptable."

She goes on: "It is the responsibility of the university to make sure that such interference is not happening, and they should be taking your concerns far more seriously than they appear to be doing.

Such interference may also affect your right to academic freedom, something again that the university should be taking very seriously."

She advises: "Make a note of anything that has been done or said by the local employer (even if it appears it was said 'in jest') that has indicated an unacceptable level of interference with course content and/or academic standards.

"I then suggest that you put your concerns in writing to the head of department, pointing out the university's responsibility in relation to its academic standards and your right to academic freedom, and ask the university to make it clear to the local employer that such interference will not be tolerated. Copy the letter to your union representative and keep a copy yourself. You may also want to copy it to the person responsible in your university for academic standards (often a pro vice-chancellor). If your head of department does not respond or refuses to take appropriate action, seek advice from your union representative on what further steps you can take."

This advice panel includes the University and College Union, the Universities and Colleges Employers' Association, Research Councils UK, the Equality Challenge Unit and Rachel Flecker, an academic who sits on Bristol University's contract research working party. Send questions to advicepanel@thes.co.uk

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