Elite's self-preservation

July 14, 2011

It has long been accepted that one element of institutional autonomy is the appointment of staff. But the argument for complete freedom to terminate contracts unilaterally is not so strong, and the carefully designed processes for recruitment are not necessarily replicated in the case of redundancies, with employment law, designed for a different era and for a business environment, offering little real protection.

Since the first report in Times Higher Education some months ago about compulsory redundancies at the University of Stirling's Institute of Aquaculture ("Aquaculture cuts at Stirling net one-day walkout", 25 April), I have closely followed the process adopted by the university's court. The classic reason for redundancy is the fact that "the requirements of (its) business for employees to carry out work of a particular kind...have ceased or diminished or are expected to cease or diminish".

Usually, redundancies are justified when an employer is in financial difficulty. In 2009-10, Stirling generated a surplus of almost £5 million; at the time it employed 18 individuals paid annual salaries of £90,000 or more, including eight receiving more than £100,000, excluding pension costs. Recently, it has advertised two new positions of deputy principal. The university also employs in the institute professorial staff who are over the age of 65. In pursuance of the principle of institutional autonomy, the members of the court, who are charity trustees, have decided that they would rather sacrifice the careers and livelihoods of support staff to the maintenance of high salaries for a select group.

If, as they claim, the "business" of the charity is in difficulty, proposing a reduction in the salaries of the highest paid, abandoning new managerial appointments and retiring those most able to afford to do so would presumably be a sound, fair and reasonable alternative to the hardship caused to the less fortunate.

Is the academic community as a whole - including those who fund and those who assess the quality of the institution - prepared to leave such a far-reaching decision to a group with a majority of unelected, unpaid, people reliant entirely on the highly paid officers with a potential conflict of interest?

The Scottish Executive should hold an inquiry into the process by which this decision was reached, and we should be on the alert for similar events throughout the UK.

Dennis Farrington, Rye, East Sussex

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