It may become easier to sack lecturers following Privy Council approval of plans to change the constitution of old universities, the Association of University Teachers claimed this week. The plans could also weaken their historic academic freedoms.
The Privy Council, which has formally to approve all constitutional changes to old universities with a royal charter, has tacitly accepted a set of new model university statutes drawn up by a vice-chancellors' working group.
The AUT said proposals were "seriously deficient". The union said the new statutes would:
- Extend the reasons university employers could give for dismissing staff to include "some other substantial reason", in addition to the "good cause" reason set out in the 1988 Education Act
- Deny staff access to an external adjudicator in employment disputes, especially those that are concerned with challenges to academic freedom
- Ensure that staff on fixed-term contracts would be denied an appeal against non-renewal of contracts and would be treated differently to those on standard contracts, possibly against European law
- Allow universities to change the detail of their employment rules through ordinances, the subsets of statues (these can be changed by governors and do not have to be scrutinised by the Privy Council to ensure they are fair and legal).
Of particular concern, says the AUT, are plans to extend the statutory reasons for dismissal to include "some other substantial reason", in line with general employment law.
In a circular to members, the union's general secretary, Sally Hunt, said:
"Given the many and varied means of pursuing conflict of professional interest, such a general reason for dismissal may provide for situations that in reality amount to a denial of academic freedom. For example, an irretrievable breakdown of relationships is acceptable under general employment law to justify dismissal as being fairI However, if the breakdown between two members of staff (is) a result of professional disagreementI then this would indicate a denial of the academic freedom of one of the parties."
At its annual council last month, the AUT passed a motion agreeing to a vociferous campaign to prevent universities changing their statutes to accommodate the new provisions.
Feelings ran so high over the issue that a proposal to rule out discussion of the matter with employers, as a symbol of the AUT's total opposition to the changes, was narrowly defeated.
Jocelyn Prudence, chief executive of the Universities and Colleges Employers' Association, said: "There are better things for the AUT to put its energies into, and any political campaign would be futile because the statues have already been approved by the Privy Council.
"All universities will now wish to change their statutes in accordance with the new model. It is a very welcome development that may actually strengthen academic freedom."