Queen's, think again

October 9, 1998

John M. D. Kremer is correct in saying that the plans by Queen's University Belfast rest on a distorted view of the duties of university teachers and of the functions of departments (Letters, THES, October 2).

Research is not all. Good departments depend on the commitment of some people who give priority to teaching and administration - and pastoral care of students. How is wider access to succeed without such people?

It is also essential that the legal framework affecting the termination of the employment of academics should be clear to all. No doubt Queen's has informed all of its staff of the provisions of the 1988 Education Act and of the terms of the statutes that will subsequently have been imposed by the University Commissioners.

Involuntary termination of employment is legally possible under two specific conditions:

Redundancy, which can be demonstrated only by a prior decision on the part of the university to close an entire academic area.

Once redundancy has been declared, it is not legally permissible to hire someone else to perform the functions of the person dismissed. Closing an area of study is legal. But is it rational, given the central importance of Queen's to the educational prospects of future generations in Ulster?

Proof of improper conduct or incapacity. If this were to be disputed in any one case, the fact that the university had announced an intention to end the employment of 107 academics would tend to suggest that its procedures were prejudiced, and therefore invalid.

To secure involuntary termination, the university would have to prove improper conduct or incapacity or unwillingness to perform contractual duties. It is safe to assume that no lecturer at Queen's has a contract obliging him or her to contribute to a particular score in the next research assessment exercise.

In any case it is possible that the next RAE will be the last. And what view will the new Northern Ireland Assembly take?

Many of those invited to consider severance could be forgiven for feeling that the heat was on them. This is not a good start for the university's role in that new phase in the history of Northern Ireland for which everyone hopes.

F. G. B. Millar

Professor of ancient history Brasenose College, Oxford

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