Mooted change to discipline rules stirs Cambridge debate

Fairer or fouler? Views vary on a proposed update to long-established code, writes Melanie Newman

February 26, 2009

Anachronistic or a vital shield from the evils of modern management, the University of Cambridge's archaic disciplinary procedures are splitting opinion at the 800-year-old institution.

The debate is being fuelled by plans to replace the procedures with a more contemporary system that would see academic and non-academic staff treated equally.

The procedures, which also cover grievances and dismissals, are enshrined in Cambridge's statutes. They can be changed only by the governing body of dons, known as the Regent House, and the Privy Council.

Now, a White Paper from the university council and general board suggests replacing them with a shorter statute and a new code of practice and regulations. These would be placed in the university ordinances, which can be changed without Privy Council approval, and supplemented by codes of practice from the council.

William Brown, master of Darwin College, Cambridge, and an industrial-relations expert, said the existing procedures were "increasingly inadequate", "cumbersome" and "unjust".

Of the ten or so grievances or disciplinary cases each year, he said, most took a year to resolve and some took as long as five years.

He said that the procedures had fallen behind evolving employment law, pointing to the system whereby dons voted on who should be selected for redundancy, which had "unacceptable implications".

However, Ross Anderson, professor of security engineering, raised concerns about the new code of practice proposed in the White Paper.

The code, based on principles adopted in 1997 by Unesco, is used by a South African university that recently sacked two professors for broaching a subject in its senate against the vice-chancellor's wishes, he said.

"While (the code) starts off with a proclamation of academics' rights, it continues with an even longer proclamation of academics' responsibilities," he said.

Professor Anderson also highlighted the case of a member of academic-related staff at Cambridge who he said was excluded socially, moved to less challenging work and then made redundant after writing a paper criticising one of the university's computer systems. If this happened to an academic, it would be considered "disgraceful", he said.

"It is now proposed that, in the interests of treating all staff the same, the protections enjoyed by academic staff should be levelled down (to those of academic-related staff)."

Currently, academics have the right to appeal to a panel of seven senior peers but, under the plans, this would be cut to a panel of three selected by the relevant head of department.

Nick Maclaren, of the university's computing service, said that the White Paper "proposes no disincentive for abuse of power".

A new list of offences includes "breaches of the university or department regulations, rules, policies or procedures relating to safety, finance or any other matter".

Stephen Cowley, senior lecturer in mathematics, asked: "Is there anyone in the university who has not at some point fallen foul of that clause?"

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