Dons’ campaign secures disciplinary bodies’ future

Proposals to scrap Cambridge tribunal and ‘Septemviri’ oversight abandoned by management. Melanie Newman reports

February 22, 2010

Plans at the University of Cambridge to make it easier to sack staff have been amended after a concerted campaign by academics and administrative staff.

But the amendments may not be enough to see the changes approved in a ballot in May.

Currently, academics facing the sack on disciplinary grounds have the right to have their cases heard by the university tribunal and to appeal to the “Septemviri” – a court of seven senior academics – if the tribunal finds against them.

Under the plans originally put forward by the university’s council and general board, both the tribunal and the Septemviri would have been removed from the university’s disciplinary procedures.

The two bodies have now been reinstated following a lengthy debate spanning two sessions in November and December 2009 on proposed changes to “Statute U”, which covers academic discipline, grievances and dismissals.

But dissenters such as David Abulafia, professor of Mediterranean history, and Richard Barnes, senior lecturer in physiology, said that after the recent amendments – and two years of debate – they still wanted to retain Statute U in its current form.

The board’s proposals are “complex and sweeping”, the dissenters said, and will “inhibit both academic freedom and the functioning of our future democratic processes”.

Another academic told Times Higher Education: “These tiny adjustments are intended to be a sop to the voters who will go with the Establishment for a quiet life. The big question of making it a lot easier to sack academic-related staff is still squatting in the middle like a knobbly toad.”

The board has not withdrawn a provision that says staff may be dismissed for “unreasonable refusal to carry out a reasonable instruction”.

In the debate last year, William Brown, professor of industrial relations and master of Darwin College, argued that Statute U needed to be amended to reflect changes in employment law and ensure grievances were settled in a timely manner.

“There are some in the university who wish to preserve procedures as they are on the grounds that, though imperfect, they are the devil they know,” he said.

Such people may not be aware of the “far too many cases” where allegations of bullying or plagiarism had “soured and scarred departments because they have dragged on inconclusively and with unnecessary litigation”, he added.

The argument cut little ice with the university’s dons, however.

Kathleen Wheeler, a reader in English, said that if the proposals were adopted, Cambridge would become “a boring, grey, conformist place, no longer able to protect the often eccentric and unusual minds of real genius”.

Many universities have already simplified their statutes and introduced new provisions on staff redundancies and dismissals.

At Newcastle University, a proposed statute would allow the vice-chancellor to “dismiss any member of staff to whom this statute applies either with or without notice, depending on the circumstances of the case, on any grounds permitted by Section 98 of the Employment Rights Act 1996”.

At a recent meeting of the university’s academic board, Chris Brink, Newcastle’s vice-chancellor, was asked whether this would “make it easier for the university to dismiss academic staff”.

A Newcastle spokesman said: “The proposed amendments are intended to remove procedures that do not comply with current employment legislation and best practice.”

He added: “No changes to the statutes can be agreed without the prior consideration of the senate, the supreme governing body on academic matters.”

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