Ask the panel

September 9, 2005

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

I am a senior lecturer of a mechanical engineering team. My university has recently announced that it will cut approximately 30 per cent of the courses offered in our department. This will have severe implications for myself and my colleagues, who are all of Asian origin. We feel that it is because our "faces don't fit". How can we ascertain the reasons for the university's decision and see if it can be challenged?

* The panellist from the Equality Challenge Unit says: "There are a couple of issues to consider here. The first is whether as a lecturer of Asian origin, the proposed job cuts will have a differential effect on you. The second is how you can approach your institution in the light of these proposals."

She goes on: "To help in your assessment of how the job cuts may affect you and your colleagues, you would be advised to ask whether the institution conducted a race equality impact assessment on the proposed changes. The Race Relations (Amendment) Act 2000 places a general duty on your institution to promote equality of opportunity, and also a specific duty to assess the impact of policies, provisions, criterion and practices on staff of different racial groups. The proposed cuts could well merit a full impact assessment.

"The results of an impact assessment exercise would show whether staff of different racial groups in the team would be affected by the changes, and potentially be discriminated against. If they would be, then the university must take steps to deal with this, to ensure that it is promoting equality of opportunity under the general duty."

She advises: "Ideally you should be able to speak with your manager to obtain this information. However, if you feel apprehensive about doing this, you should speak to your trade union."

* The panellist from the Association of University Teachers also refers to the provisions of the Race Relations (Amendment) Act, pointing out that your employer can be required to produce an impact assessment of its decision. "If this shows a disproportionate impact on a group of employees of a particular ethnic origin, then the employer can be required to justify this action," he says. "In both cases it is better to ask your union to approach your employer to ensure that no individuals or specific groups of staff are exposed to any possible repercussions."

* The Natfhe panellist says that your university should have sought to avoid redundancies and that your trade union should formally request details of this consultation as well as plans for suitable alternative employment.

It should also request a copy of the race impact assessment.

"If this is not provided or hasn't been done, you need to take early advice since that would probably be a breach of the university's statutory duty," he says.

"Depending on the response to this you might decide to accept offers of suitable alternative employment or try to challenge the cuts, on your own behalf and on a wider social and academic basis. Should you decide to do this, it will be important to get detailed advice from the union branch. If the redundancies do go ahead, you need to beware of refusing to accept suitable alternative employment, as to do so is likely to jeopardise any redundancy rights you might have."

* The panellist from the Universities and Colleges Employers' Association concludes: "Any redundancies the university is proposing will have to be consulted upon. Redun-dancies must be justifiable and conform to both employment and equality legislation. It may be that your university has sound reasons for reducing the number of courses on offer, but if you can point to evidence that the redundancy process has not been fairly carried out, you can appeal or take the case to an employment tribunal.

Support should be available from your institution's human resources department, its equalities officer or your union."

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