Study leave: why you should bother

Study leave: why you should bother

By Mike Toten on 12 November 2018
November is the month when employees who are studying university or technical/further education courses have their end-of-year exams. December/January are the main months when they make decisions about enrolling in courses for the following year. 
 
What types of study leave entitlements exist for employees? And where there aren’t any, what can you do to help employees?

Study leave in this context refers to paid leave to enable employees to attend courses relevant to work and meet other requirements of those courses. At this time of year, the most relevant issues are likely to be time off work to sit for exams, to study in preparation for them, and to complete end-of-year assignments.

Legal entitlements


There are no entitlements to study leave in legislation – nothing in the National Employment Standards for example. However, provisions sometimes exist in awards, enterprise agreements and individual employment contracts, so you need to check those documents carefully and comply with them.

A typical study leave provision will include the following:
  • which employees are eligible – usually permanent employees only, and a minimum length of service, eg one year, may be specified
  • the amount of leave and what it may be used for – a typical provision is a number of days per year (eg five) or a number of hours per week that the course runs for (eg five), including time to attend exams that are held during working hours
  • the type of courses that study leave may be granted for – typically these must be courses relevant to the employee’s current job or related to his/her career advancement. In some cases, completing the course provides a qualification that is an essential requirement of a job or career stage the employee will move into
  • whether the leave is paid or unpaid – in most cases, it is paid
  • provisions requiring the employee to give prior notice of taking leave and requiring the employer to approve the course as one that is eligible for study leave
  • separate provisions relating to online or distance education courses – sometimes these are less generous than for “attend-in-person” courses
  • some awards provide for a third party to arbitrate disputes over whether study leave should be granted.
You are of course free to provide study leave to employees when not legally obligated to, or to provide more generous leave arrangements that the minima set by awards, agreements or contracts. For example, the provisions above are usually tied to a specific requirement, eg to attend a lecture or exam. Provisions that grant time to study generally to prepare for exams are rare, but may be a very helpful extra benefit to provide.

Although it may not be a legal obligation, many employers make study assistance conditional on maintaining satisfactory job performance.

Why you should consider it


Even if you aren’t obligated to provide employees with study leave, there are strong arguments in favour of doing so. 

Surveys of employee engagement and surveys of job-seekers have regularly found that opportunities for learning/further education and career advancement are one of the most influential factors in their decisions about which employers to apply/choose to work for. Not providing such opportunities can place you at a disadvantage when recruiting, and not making an effort to accommodate employees’ study needs may send the wrong message.

It can be argued that employees who undertake further education will be more valuable because they will be better qualified, more competent in their work/job area and more able to move into more senior roles.

Workplace policy recommended


A policy on study leave and (where provided) other forms of education assistance to employees is recommended. It should cover types of assistance available, eligibility, how to apply, approval process, claiming reimbursement, and dealing with disputes.

What if you can’t provide paid study leave, or extra study leave?


If there are legitimate business reasons why it isn’t feasible to provide paid study leave, you can consider “fallback” options such as the following:
  • granting unpaid study leave
  • relaxing the administrative requirements for employees to make flexible work arrangements or take other forms of leave, eg annual leave or rostered days off, to fit around study requirements

Other forms of assistance


In addition to leave, you could consider providing the following forms of assistance to encourage employees to undertake further education:
  • payment of all/part of course enrolment fees, Higher Education Loan Program (HELP) charges, and other course expenses (such as resource materials)
  • loans to employees to pay their costs
  • sending letters of support for employees’ enrolment to course providers
  • sponsorship of universities/education colleges, or courses that have strong relevance to your business, and
  • publicising relevant courses and providing information about them to employees to encourage them to enrol.
 
 

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