Stirling threatens Scottish consensus on staff rights

University's decision to hold its own consultation on statutes reform worries UCU, writes Tariq Tahir

February 28, 2008

Attempts to reach a Scotland-wide agreement on academics' employment rights could be undermined by the University of Stirling, it has been claimed.

University statutes set out rules that pre-1992 universities, established under Royal Charter, must adhere to in their affairs. They contain, among other provisions, a commitment to academic freedom and employment protection for staff.

The statutes can be altered only with the permission of the Privy Council, but many universities see them as too rigid and argue that they restrict their ability to manage their affairs. Their viewpoint is shared by both Bill Rammell, the UK Higher Education Minister, and the Scottish Government.

Scotland's eight pre-1992 universities approached the University and College Union Scotland two years ago with a view to arriving at a consensus on changing the so-called model statute, which sets out staff employment rights.

But Stirling has decided to conduct its own consultation on changing the model and other statutes.

Nationally, the union has raised concerns about universities removing the model statute and replacing it with an ordinance, which can be amended by the university court instead of the Privy Council. Stirling wants to replace the model statute with an ordinance.

Deborah Shepherd, a UCU Scotland official, told Times Higher Education: "We were happy to engage with (the eight universities) in a spirit of constructive negotiation and partnership.

"We would like up-to-date employment law protections incorporated into the statutes, and during the two-year period since that first approach, have worked on our own set of proposals, which has been with the employers for a considerable period with no response from them ... the ball is currently in the employers' court.

"The problem we have with Stirling is that it has broken away from this process and gone directly to its staff, with no reference to the partnership we had formed with all the pre-92 Scottish employers at their request.

"We think Stirling has acted in bad faith and not in the spirit of the process, having given no prior warning to UCU of the decision to go it alone. We have been contacted by individual staff members who have expressed concern about the method of consultation being employed, which is outside normal collective bargaining machinery."

But Jim McGeorge, Stirling's deputy secretary, said the first he had heard of the union's unhappiness was when he was contacted by Times Higher Education.

"We are very willing to talk to the unions - we want to have active discussions on these proposals and get their views. We don't have any finalised position, so it feels a wee bit odd that they are making these complaints at this stage."

Dr McGeorge said that Stirling was undertaking a wider review of its charter and statues, which went beyond the "more limited" separate review of the model statute being undertaken by the other seven pre-1992 universities in Scotland.

"The university ... has a duty to determine what is the most appropriate approach to the reform of its own instruments of governance consistent with its own governance framework."

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