Academics at the University of Reading have voted to reject a new employment contract that many fear could leave them at risk of immediate dismissal if they criticise their employer.
As part of a programme to update its 1926 university charter, Reading is seeking to introduce revised academic contracts that are, it says, in line with modern employment law.
But the introduction of new contracts – to replace those which reference the now-abolished statutes, deemed “an unnecessary additional level of complexity” in governance structures – has been put on hold after a ballot of UCU members last week resulted in just over a third of eligible academic staff voting two to one against the proposed changes.
Much of the disquiet relates to a new clause over “termination without notice”, which the university says “clarifies the situations in which employees may be dismissed with immediate effect”.
Dismissal could occur “[if you] refuse or neglect to comply with any reasonable and lawful directions of the university” or are “in the reasonable opinion of the university, negligent and incompetent in the performance of your duties”, the proposed contract says.
Staff could also be fired if they act “in any manner which in the reasonable opinion of the university is likely to bring the university or any subsidiary into disrepute or is materially adverse to the interests of the university or any subsidiary”, it adds.
However, without the protections afforded by the statutes, these clauses “could be applied to anyone, at any time, for any reason” because they are “very broad and worded vaguely”, argues a document circulated among staff that outlines the objections of some academics.
Staff point out that the requirement to “promote, protect and develop and extend the business and reputation of the university, its subsidiaries and its interests” may limit their ability to criticise the university.
“We think our duty is to outstanding scholarship – teaching, supervision and research – that is what best serves a university,” states another document outlining staff concerns, adding that an “erosion of academic freedom is unacceptable”.
“What is to stop any of the provisions from being used to threaten an outspoken academic employee – to shut them up – should they question certain university policies or business?” it adds.
“Many staff see [this contract] as a direct attack on their academic freedoms and job security,” said one Reading academic who did not wish to be named.
The university has rejected the accusations, saying that it is an “unequivocal supporter of academic freedom” – a concept enshrined and protected in its new charter for the first time.
“Our staff are perfectly free, within the law, to question and test perceived wisdom and to put forward new ideas and controversial or unpopular opinions,” a university spokesman said.
“There is a fundamental difference between academics being free to comment and bringing the institution into disrepute through fraudulent, dishonest or malicious behaviour,” he added.
Academic staff had “a contractual responsibility to their colleagues and to the wider university, and the university must be able to act where these responsibilities are not met”, he said.
Paul Hatcher said that Reading’s UCU branch, of which he is president, had negotiated over the wording of the new contracts to improve protection for staff, but he acknowledged that concerns remained.
Negotiations over the contracts would resume at the end of the month, he said.