Legal bid to stop course closures

January 12, 2007

Union leaders at Birmingham University are threatening to take legal action over compulsory redundancy and course closure plans that they say amount to "institutional racism", writes Tony Tysome.

Birmingham UCU said this week it was taking further legal advice after the university's council voted through proposals to axe community play and youth work courses and to make up to eight academic staff redundant.

In an open letter circulated to members of the council before Christmas, the UCU points out that the plan will mean that five out of a total seven black and minority ethnic staff in the university's School of Education could lose their jobs.

The letter, titled "Institutional Racism", claims that the university has started a course closure process "where the outcome will disproportionately target black and minority ethnic community staff for redundancy; and will disproportionately affect provision for black and minority ethnic community students".

Thompsons, the firm of solicitors that has been advising the UCU on the legal implications of the decision, has written to Birmingham vice-chancellor Michael Sterling warning that the university is running the risk of breaking its own statutes on race equality and redundancy procedures.

In its letter, Thompsons says the redundancy proposals have been made "without the benefit of a racial impact assessment" and without consulting the UCU, placing the university "in breach of its own ordinances".

And it warns: "We have advised the UCU on the formal legal options available to the union in the event that the university proceeds to adopt the strategy for the School of Education at the council meeting, in contravention of its ordinances and of the steps that can be taken to enforce compliance by the university of its race equality duty."

Paul Warmington, a member of Birmingham UCU's committee and a lecturer in the School of Education, said the closure plans would hurt the university's widening-participation record.

"There is a clear message here about severing of links between the university and the 'wrong kind' of programmes." he said.

The courses being withdrawn are the diploma in higher education in community, play and youth studies and the MA in applied community studies.

A statement from Birmingham said: "The university decided to withdraw provision in community, play and youth studies for three reasons: it was not supported by internationally competitive research activity; there was a lack of fit with the university's strategic framework; and it was not financially viable.

"The primary concern of the committee is to consider all avenues for redeployment. It is only once those avenues have been exhausted that redundancy or voluntary severance is considered."

The university said it had acted in accordance with its statutes and ordinances.

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