Bid to ditch statute is panned

October 1, 2004

Lecturers' leaders have criticised Durham University over plans to abandon the "model statute" that has protected academic freedom and ensured "justice and fairness" for staff for 16 years.

The Association of University Teachers said the statute, enshrined in the internal laws (or statutes and ordinances) of old universities since the 1988 Education Reform Act, represented an essential safeguard of employment rights.

Durham is reviewing the statute as part of a bid for money for staff development.

David Bleiman, AUT assistant general secretary, said: "Staff are extremely anxious that the university is seeking to make it easier to make them redundant, sack or discipline them rather than to make sure they are treated fairly.

"Durham should not be bidding for money from the funding council to worsen its approach to people management."

The statute enshrines the principle of academic freedom - the "freedom within the law to question and test perceived wisdom, and to put forward new ideas and controversial or unpopular opinions" without fear of individuals losing their job. It also embodies the principles of "justice and fairness" in university procedures.

Durham's submission to the Higher Education Funding Council for England for money under the rewarding and developing staff scheme said its experience of applying the statute "places constraints in the way of effective management of the university's affairs".

It said: "In recent years, continuous recourse to model statute provisions, particularly on redundancy, has created unnecessary confrontation and ill feeling when more pragmatic approaches would probably have produced fairer results."

Durham said it was merely responding to a review of the model statute for Universities UK last year, undertaken by Graham Zellick, former vice-chancellor of London University.

Professor Zellick proposed a revised model statute to "strike a balance between the needs of institutions and the interests of staff".

His report said that universities would have to adapt the new statute locally, with the approval of the Privy Council on a case-by-case basis.

A spokesman for Durham said: "The points that have been made to The Times Higher seem to be based on a misunderstanding of the situation and confusion about 'principles' and 'procedures'. It is not clear why Durham is being singled out.

"Like many universities, Durham is concerned that the procedures are complex and time-consuming and are difficult to follow - either for staff or management - without the risk of unwittingly falling foul of procedure.

The review that universities are conducting is therefore about procedure not principles.

"The principles of justice and fairness are also enshrined in the revised model statute. Durham, if it decides to apply to the Privy Council to adopt some revisions, will not be seeking any changes to these.

"At this stage, the university has made no decision about this and is simply looking at the practical implications of the revised model statute produced by Professor Zellick and his group."

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