Academics face the prospect of stop-and-search policies on campus as commercial employment practices and security measures creep into the once genteel world of academe, experts warned this week.
Lawyers and human resources experts said that university managers were beginning to tighten their rules amid concerns of rising violence, theft and drug use on campus. One expert even predicted that random drug testing could soon be introduced to the sector.
The comments came as a row broke out over Liverpool Hope University College's declaration of its right to search academic staff. Lecturers'
union Natfhe was outraged when the college issued guidelines stating that the college reserves the right to search "any of its employees or any of their property held on Liverpool Hope premises (including its car parks and grounds) at any time if in the opinion of Liverpool Hope there are reasonable grounds to believe that the employees... are guilty of any breach of Liverpool Hope's rules and regulations."
The guidelines warn that refusal to submit to a search will "normally" be treated as gross misconduct, which can lead to instant dismissal.
Diane Gilhooley, head of the education and employment department at specialist education lawyers Eversheds, said that such policies were established employment practice. "There is a general sector push to improve policies and practices," she said. "Stop-and-search policies have been unusual in academic institutions, which is why I suspect that the unions will not like it." She could not comment on the specific case.
Nick Bacon, professor of human resource management at Nottingham University, said: "You would hope it is rather unnecessary in universities, but I can see reasons why these moves are part of good systems to protect employees. Our campus is close to a rough estate. Lots of things go missing, and we've had knives pulled on security officers. We should not be naive about the world in which universities are situated, so there are pros to such policies as well as cons."
He said that mandatory drug testing, which is a big issue in schools, could easily form part of new policies in universities.
Liverpool Hope posted its new policy on its website last month. It states:
"Liverpool Hope recognises that trust is the foundation of the employment relationship with its employees, and as such wishes to provide guidelines for situations where it reserves the right to search its employees."
Roger Kline, head of the universities department at Natfhe, said: "There is no place for this in higher education. No reasons were given for this policy, and no evidence of its need was presented. This has human rights implications and is extremely out of place in an institute of learning. We will respond vigorously to any institutions even thinking of introducing such a shocking practice."
A Liverpool Hope spokeswoman said a draft of the guidelines was discussed with trade unions at meetings of the joint consultative and negotiating committee. No objections had been raised in consultation, she said.
"Subsequent to the publication of the guidelines the trade unions said that some members had expressed concern; based on the misunderstanding that search meant or included a body search, which it does not. The search refers to personal belongings, such as a handbag or briefcase. The wording is being amended to make that crystal clear and the policy, like all Hope policies, will be reviewed after a year," she said.
She added that the initiative was taken with legal advice, would be used only in exceptional circumstances and was "at least, in part, a staff-led" consultation designed to protect the reputation of staff after a number of thefts.
Mike Noon, head of the department of human resource management at De Montfort University, said: "I've never heard about it before at universities. This is quite bizarre and worrying. Draconian is the word for it.