Universities and colleges are now legally obliged to consult both recognised unions and the individual employees concerned over every redundancy, even if it is the normal termination of a fixed-term contract on the expiry of external funding.
The obligation was established a decade ago following the case of Gordon Campbell, a teacher of tutors of the deaf, who had a fixed-term contract with the University of Newcastle. When his contract "expired" the university failed to inform or consult the Newcastle branch of the Association of University Teachers, because managers sincerely, but wrongly, believed that the end of a contract was neither a dismissal nor a redundancy. Lawyers argued that there was no redundancy in the sense of the university no longer needing Campbell's work but that, sadly, there was no money to continue his employment.
Four years after Campbell's dismissal, and following two industrial tribunal hearings, an Employment Appeal Tribunal confirmed that the university should have consulted the AUT about the redundancy, although Campbell had waived his rights to a redundancy payment. The judgment entered the statute books as the case which established that the ending of a fixed-term contract through expiry of funding was a redundancy which triggered union consultation rights.
Since then, to overcome shortcomings in United Kingdom employment law in relation to European Union directives, the Government has had to beef up the requirements for redundancy consultation which are now about ways of avoiding dismissals, reducing the numbers to be dismissed and mitigating the consequences of the dismissals. This consultation must aim to reach agreement with the trade union representatives.
Consultations may comprise a personnel interview with the member of staff concerned to review their CV, qualifications, skills and interests; a trawl of current and prospective vacancies in the university; consideration of the individual's suitability for specific vacancies; plus the possibility for retraining and career counselling for internal or external employment.
Can university personnel offices cope with the volume of consultations now required? Not without increased resources. Consider the caseload at Glasgow University, where 400 contracts terminate annually - even if just half a day is spent interviewing and assisting each individual. Can hard-pressed local union officers handle the volume? Not without a radical reorganisation of the way consultations are handled, for example by union contract research staff representatives handling cases, with access to advice and support from full-time officials and solicitors.
However, until universities and the AUT can demonstrate that consultation can work constructively, neither employer nor the association will earn the loyalty of contract staff. The massive expansion of contract research activity has brought the situation to crisis point. The challenge is to introduce positive policies to develop career paths for these key scientists. The proper use of appraisal, staff development and career counselling would help, combined with improved conditions of employment for researchers and a thorough redundancy consultation process when the end of the contract looms.
There will be some modest costs for the first universities to accept this challenge. But the prize will be the retention of research expertise which the current system wastes.
David Bleiman is assistant general secretary of the Association of University Teachers.