Campaign decries redundancy plan’s ‘impossible’ choice

Severance options at Surrey amounted to ‘sackings’ claims letter signed by almost 200 scholars. Melanie Newman reports

September 9, 2009

Almost 200 senior academics from across the UK have signed a letter criticising the University of Surrey’s handling of redundancies in its psychology department.

Seven academic jobs are to go in the department as the university attempts to reduce its financial deficit.

The letter, which is signed by 185 psychologists, says Surrey presented the staff with an “impossible” choice: “Give up their jobs immediately with a small financial cushion, or gamble on winning a ‘musical-chairs’ contest against their colleagues for one of the reduced number of posts – but face losing that cushion if they failed.”

Several individuals felt that the way in which the new posts were defined placed them at a disadvantage and thus decided to leave, the letter says.

“Management has sought to represent this as a matter of voluntary choice. However, we regard it as amounting to sacking people. Certainly, those who accepted the package have said that they did not want to go but felt they had no option.”

The action has given a “green light” to other institutions thinking of pressuring staff to leave and constitutes a “dangerous precedent that needs to be challenged”, the letter concludes.

Responding to the campaigners with a letter of his own, Nick Emler, dean of Surrey’s faculty of arts and human sciences, complains that he has been “altercast in the role of the villain”.

“I could, I suppose, distance myself from this grey monster, invoking the Nuremberg defence. But the fact is I was a party to the policy; and was the architect of this ‘final solution’ in the particular case of the psychology department,” he writes.

Explaining that the redundancies were a last resort, he says that in defining the new posts “some care was taken to exclude no one from applying on the basis of their particular expertise… It will have been the case that three staff looked at the plan and could see no position at their grade. But it was open to [them to] argue for a different grading of posts in the provisional plan, and others have done this.”

Forty members of staff had opted to seek a post in the new structure rather than apply for voluntary severance, he says, and of those who accepted redundancy, only two had declared that they had no option.

“I accept the good intentions of your campaign, but it will not create a single additional place in this particular lifeboat,” he concludes. “And I fear it could actually damage the prospects for… the 40 staff who have opted to stay and who are as deserving of a decent future as those who have decided to leave. You also put at risk the dignity of these latter who have declared that their choice was theirs alone.”

The campaign against Surrey’s redundancy plan was organised by Charles Antaki, professor of language and social psychology at Loughborough University. He said: “We acknowledge that not everyone left against their will, but undoubtedly some did. The issue is not one of numbers but of principle: such forced redundancies set a dangerous precedent.”

A spokeswoman for the university said: “We regret that a small number of people who chose to take enhanced voluntary severance are suggesting that the process was less than fair or transparent. We always strive for fairness and compliance with agreed processes. We are working hard to support staff through the process, and we remain determined to take all necessary action to safeguard the longer-term interests of the institution, its staff and its students.”

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