Universities have been accused of lobbying ministers to make it easier to get rid of staff on fixed-term contracts.
The criticism was made by the sector’s biggest trade unions, the University and College Union and Unison, after it appeared that higher education institutions were the main drivers behind government plans to explicitly exclude fixed-term appointees from consultations on collective redundancies.
About a third of all academics - 60,320 of 181,185 staff in 2010-11, according to Higher Education Statistics Agency data - are employed on fixed-term contracts, but universities have complained that the rules governing what to do when employees are approaching the end of such contracts are unclear.
At present, most universities feel obliged to treat fixed-term staff in the same way as those on open-ended contracts, consulting with them on redundancies over the course of 90 days if at least 20 employees are losing their jobs.
But the institutions have complained that the high turnover of academic staff on fixed-term contracts with differing end dates means that they are in “near-constant consultation” to comply with employment law.
In a Department for Business, Innovation and Skills document on its proposals to change employment law, published on 18 December, the government notes comments “in particular, [from] employers in the higher education sector [who] felt that an exemption would remove the current requirement for them to engage in near-constant consultation over the end of fixed-term contracts”.
But the intervention has sparked a furious reaction from the unions.
Jon Richards, Unison’s national secretary for education, accused universities of being at “the forefront of undermining employment rights”.
And Michael MacNeil, the UCU’s head of higher education, said: “It is appalling that people who consider themselves to be enlightened have been working behind the scenes to take workers’ rights back to the Dark Ages.”
The UCU has written to Universities UK, the Universities and Colleges Employers Association and vice-chancellors “to ask who it was that lobbied government to make it easier to sack…staff”, he said.
“Good employers know that it makes sense to treat staff properly and should not follow the government’s slash-and-burn approach to employment rights,” he added.
However, the government claimed that legislation would only clarify existing redundancy processes, which do not require employers to consult with staff coming to the end of fixed-term contracts.
These processes were outlined in an employment tribunal ruling involving the UCU and the University of Stirling, published in 2011. It found that the university did not need to consult with fixed-term appointees as their departures did not count as “redundancy”, but merely the end of a contract.
“Legislation is the only way forward, particularly because there was an appeal lodged against the Stirling decision in May,” said employment lawyer David Faulkner, partner at law firm SGH Martineau.
A spokesman for Ucea, which relayed the universities’ concerns to ministers, said that “the removal of legislative uncertainty and complication in this area” would allow it to focus its efforts and resources on helping staff on fixed-term contracts to find other jobs.