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HE action - ASOS/working to contract

UCU information on 'working to contract'

As part of the action short of strike (ASOS) the union is asking members to work to contract. Working to contract means abiding by the terms of your contract (including your obligation to perform your duties in an efficient manner), but to do no more than that.

In particular, members are asked to:

  • work no more than their contracted hours where those hours are expressly stated, and in any event not to exceed the maximum number of hours per week stipulated in the Working Time Regulations (48) unless you have signed an opt-out
  • perform no additional voluntary duties, such as out of hours cover, or covering for colleagues (unless such cover is contractually required)
  • set and mark no work beyond that work which they are contractually obliged to set and/or mark
  • attend no meetings where such attendance is voluntary on the part of the member.

This is not straightforward. Academic contracts are highly flexible and often vague. Local agreements covering workload vary markedly. However, we have provided guidance below in as much detail as possible, as well as links to local contracts, agreements and policies below. The union's 'work to contract' advice has been drawn up following legal advice.

1. What are my contractual weekly hours?

Your contractual hours will be those expressed within your contract or within a collective agreement on workload between UCU and your employer. Not all staff have clearly expressed contractual hours.

In some cases, established hours can be derived from local workload collective agreements. In that case, you should work no more hours than expressed in this agreement. If in doubt contact your branch.

2. What hours should I work if I have no contractual hours in my contract or any local workload agreement?

You should undertake your normal contractual duties and work your normal hours but not take on additional duties. If you are asked to take on additional duties, seek advice from the union. However, under no circumstances should you work more than the average 48 hours in any seven day working time period laid down in the Working Time Regulations.

3. Are university staff covered by the Working Time Regulations?

Our legal advice is that UCU members are covered by the Regulations and therefore that working within its limits is not a breach of contract. Consequently, working to contract is consistent with your contractual obligations as no employee can be required lawfully to work in excess of the WTR's 48hour limit over a sustained period

4. What do the Working Time Regulations say?

The Working Time Regulations provide a right for workers to work no more than an average of 48 hours in any seven day working time period. Unless your contract does or could require you to work weekends, the seven day period does not include Saturday and Sunday, but a day is a 24 hour period so does include evenings. Surveys indicate that many academic and related staff work substantially more than this.

5. What should I do if, in any one week, I have not completed my normal contractual duties within either my contractual hours or, if I do not have any, the 48 hour limit set by the Working Time Regulations?

You should stop working and resume the uncompleted task(s) in the following week. If your line manager asks why other duties were not completed you should inform them that you have been unable to complete the remainder of your normal duties within the limits either of your contractual hours or the Working Time Regulations, and that you will resume them in the following week.

It is important that all the tasks and functions you normally carry out are discharged. The work to rule does not mean that duties should not be done - it is simply a question of when you do them, and not exceeding the maximum hours stipulated in your contract or in workload agreements or established practice or, if there are no maximum hours, the WTR.

If you believe you are being asked to work too many hours, that is to say if you find that you cannot fulfil all your contractual duties within the hours limit in your contract, or the WTR (if you do not have contractual hours or a workload agreement or established practice) you should also make reference to your institution's occupational stress or workload policies which will set out various duties upon the employer to address heavy workloads.

6. Should I work after hours or at weekends?

Refer to your contract in the first instance. If your contract does not or could not require you to work in the evenings or at weekends you can refuse to work at those times. If your contract shows that you can be required to work weekends, you should refer firstly to your contractual hours or any local workload agreement. If you believe you are being asked to work too many hours, that is to say if you find that you cannot fulfil all your contractual duties within the hours limit in your contract, or the WTR (if you do not have contractual hours or a workload agreement or established practice) you should raise the issue and make reference to your institution's occupational stress or workload policies which will set out various duties upon the employer to address heavy workloads.

If you have no contractual hours or local workload agreement, refer to the WTR. If your contract shows that you can be required to work at weekends, then these weekend days also count for the purposes of the calculation of the average 48 working hours. That means that you should work no more than an average of 48 hours over seven days.

If you are asked to take on new duties in addition to your normal duties, which involve either evening or weekend working you should refuse, citing the UCU working to contract action and pointing out your willingness to perform your normal contractual duties within reasonable weekly limits as set down either by your contract or the Working Time Regulations.

7. My contract says I must work 'any reasonable hours to perform my duties' - what action can I take?

Even if your contract says this and there is no local agreement that limits working hours, there is still a lot that you can do under the work-to-contract. If you have a departmental workload management system or agreement that regulates your working hours and the distribution of your duties, observe this strictly. You should undertake your normal contractual duties and work your normal customary hours but not take on additional duties. If you are asked to take on additional duties, or work extra hours to perform those duties, seek advice from the union. Under no circumstances should you work more than the average 48 hours in any seven day working time period laid down in the Working Time Regulations, even if you normally do so on a voluntary basis to get your job done.

8. How should I approach marking?

You should, as always, take due care and give due consideration when marking work, ensuring that you are precisely meeting the guidelines both from the university itself and from the QAA. Staff are often placed under pressure by their institution to conclude their marking or second marking speedily in order to ensure internal deadlines are met. However staff have a responsibility to ensure that quality standards are being maintained, even if this means deadlines have to slip. If you find yourself falling behind, you should inform your line manager that, in accordance with your contract, you are fully complying with the University, department and QAA guidance and will therefore be unable to complete your marking or second marking by the specified deadline.

9. What about attendance at meetings?

You should attend no meetings where such attendance is voluntary.

10. What might constitute 'additional duties'?

Only you will know precisely what kinds of duties fall outside your normal duties. In determining whether something you are asked to do is an 'additional duty', you should ask yourself whether you are being asked to 'go the extra mile'. Ask yourself, have I been asked to do this previously? Am I contracted to do this? Is reasonable account being taken of the additional workload involved? A manager's right to ask you to undertake reasonable duties must be balanced against an employee's reasonable right to refuse if their contract does not make it explicit that they are expected to perform a given duty. Some examples might be: being asked to sit on a committee that you do not normally attend without account being taken of the extra workload involved; being asked to second mark on a course that you do not normally second mark for, without account being taken of the additional workload; being given extra administrative responsibilities on top of your normal workload; being asked to teach a subject that you were not contracted to teach.

11. Can I refuse to cover for absent colleagues?

Our legal advice is that unless it is explicitly stated within your contract, you can and should refuse to cover for colleagues unless this is a clearly established custom and practice.

12. Can I refuse to undertake duties associated with my line manager if they are absent?

Yes, unless it is explicitly stated within your contract that you will undertake duties associated with your line manager, you should refuse to do so citing the UCU working to contract industrial action.

13. Can I refuse to undertake cover work for which I have no expertise or which is not mentioned in my contract?

Yes. An employment appeals tribunal case (EAT) looked at whether someone who had been engaged as a lecturer in theatre studies could be asked to undertake teaching on an English course. It found that 'a management instruction [like this] to carry out duties which the appellant was not contractually obliged to perform is unlikely to be reasonable.' See more on this case here.

14. What freedom do management have to ask me to perform other duties which are not expressly set out in my contract?

There is a general duty upon employees to be cooperative and you should continue to be so. However, the EAT case mentioned above states that 'in our judgment whilst it may be necessary to imply a term of co-operation to govern performance of contractual duties it cannot be relied upon in this case to enlarge those duties.'

15. How should I approach setting and marking of work?

Staff are often placed under pressure by their institution to conclude their marking or second marking speedily in order to ensure internal deadlines are met.

However staff have a responsibility to ensure that quality standards are being maintained, even if this means deadlines have to slip.

Academic staff should therefore take due care and consideration when marking work, ensuring that they are precisely meeting the guidelines both from the university itself and from the QAA.

Second marking or anonymous marking should be undertaken with similar due care and consideration, with staff again ensuring that they are precisely meeting the guidelines both from the university itself and the QAA.

Under no circumstances should staff allow themselves to be rushed by their institution to the extent that they are unable to fully meet the terms of both the university and the QAA guidelines.

16. What do I do if I fall behind with my marking or second marking as a result of working fully to the university's and QAA's guidelines?

You should inform your line manager that, in accordance with your contract, you are fully complying with the university, department and QAA guidance and will therefore be unable to complete your marking or second marking by the required deadline. If staff within a department take a consistent approach to this, and submit similar messages to the line manager this will have a substantial impact.

17. How can I determine whether a meeting is voluntary?

If you are in doubt you should ask your head of department whether attendance is voluntary or mandatory. If they say you must attend, ask them to put in writing direct to you and take it up with your Rep. A written instruction to you does not count as a general instruction to all, so other members should seek individual confirmation that they are also required to attend. You could write using the following formulation:

'As you know, UCU members are currently working to contract and this action includes non-attendance at voluntary meetings. Consequently, I am writing to ask you to confirm in writing whether you require my attendance at [name of meeting].'

18. I am a head of department, line manager or in another senior academic/related role. How can I best support the action?

Many of the union's strongest members are in senior roles. Senior staff can play an active role in the dispute by working to contract just like everyone else and also as follows:

  • always referring a query from a UCU member related to the dispute to senior managers before responding, and doing so in each individual case
  • working within your own contract and not acting up for other staff
  • supporting staff who follow to the letter the quality guidelines in place for marking and second marking
  • if you are yourself instructed to instruct staff to do something, follow the instruction precisely - let the individual know but do not send a wider message until further instructed
  • boost morale in the department by making it clear to all that you are supporting the union's work to contract action.

19. I am hourly paid what should I do to support the action?

When working to contract, hourly paid staff should ensure that they work no more hours than those for which they are contracted and receive payment. Where payment is comprehensive i.e. it includes an element of preparation/marking/administrative time/holiday pay for every teaching hour it is important to know how much additional time is being paid. If this is not clear from the contract and/or payslip then hourly paid staff should request from human resources an explanation of how their pay is calculated. Once advised how many hours are being paid for every teaching hour, hourly paid staff will have the information they need to observe the working to contract action being called by UCU.

20. Can my line manager instruct me to do something which is outside my contract?

If you are instructed to do something which you have not regularly done previously and you consider to be outside your normal contractual duties, insist that the line manager puts the instruction in writing to you. You may be able to rely on the EAT decision mentioned above. You should also seek advice from a UCU rep.

21. Should I undertake work which I have not been fully trained on?

Under no circumstances should you operate equipment upon which you have not been properly trained and for which there has not been a recent risk assessment.

22. Should I take lunch breaks and breaks from working at my computer?

Staff should always take lunch or alternative breaks and breaks from working at your computer. You should ask your line manager to put it in writing to you if are told not to take a lunch break because you have too much work to do and raise this with your UCU rep.

23. Should I do work in my own time?

The union's advice is based on leading counsel's opinion that you should 'not going the extra mile' as part of this action. Therefore while you should perform your normal duties, if you cannot get them done either within your contractual hours or the weekly hours specified by the working time directive or finishing the task is putting you under considerable stress, you should inform management that you have too much work for a normal working week and ask them for a formal written response setting out how they intend to address the overload. Where possible, quote from your university's occupational stress policy which management need to honour.

24. What should I do if my manager is away?

If your work is dependent upon a manager's instruction you should wait until you are instructed to perform duties before beginning work. If your manager is away and you send them a query about a work matter, do not continue working on this matter until you have received a response.

25. What should I do if management insist that I perform a task I believe to be outside my contract?

If management insist on you complying with an instruction, do not lay yourself open to disciplinary action. Comply under duress, and raise a formal grievance by speaking to your local rep. It is totally legitimate to raise a grievance against a decision that you disagree with and it will cause further disruption. Most importantly, if you have any doubts regarding the consequences of a course of action, contact a branch official for advice. We cannot guarantee an immediate answer in all cases, but we will get an answer as quickly as we are able to.

26. Where can I get help and more advice?

If you need any advice or have a query on what you are being asked to do, please contact your union rep immediately or email your query to Matt Waddup and we will do our best to answer them.

27. What do I do if my manager puts me under undue pressure not to follow the work to contract action?

The action UCU members are taking is perfectly legal. If you are put under undue pressure or coercion by line managers to withdraw from the action, you should ask the manager concerned to put their instructions in writing and tell UCU immediately. UCU will not hesitate to launch collective grievances or institute further industrial action in support of members who are bullied while taking part in lawful industrial action.

28. I have been invited to an interview to discuss my participation in the action, what should I say and do?

If you are invited to attend an interview, ensure that you take a UCU representative with you. If Iin the interview, which should take place only between yourself and a line manager with a UCU representative present, the manager instructs you to complete a task you should agree to carry out the task if it is within your contractual duties. The instruction applies only to you.

Last updated: 6 December 2019