Strike warning over Birmingham’s ‘up or out’ probation plan

Union claims new career framework could result in academics being dismissed if they do not make senior lecturer within five years, but university says sanctions will be used rarely

March 10, 2021
Joseph Chamberlain Memorial Clock Tower, the tallest freestanding clock tower in the world, at University of Birmingham
Source: Alamy

Academics at the University of Birmingham have threatened to take industrial action over a proposed new career framework that they claim will require new starters to reach senior lecturer within five years or face disciplinary action that could lead to dismissal.

Under the Birmingham Academic Career Framework, which is now under consultation, the Russell Group university will reduce its initial probation period for permanent staff from three years to one year but introduce a second assessment after five years.

During five-year academic development plans (ADPs), staff will be given “training and support opportunities which will enable their careers to develop at pace” to allow the “overwhelming majority” of lecturers – renamed assistant professors – to be promoted to associate professor, which replaces the title of senior lecturer, according to internal university documents.

Those staff who are judged to have made insufficient progress on their ADP will be offered a “series of support measures…to help the individual achieve their potential” but they will potentially be subjected to “graduated performance warnings” and, in some cases, “referred to a pro vice-chancellor for consideration at a capability hearing”.

While Birmingham insists the need for these warnings will be “extremely unlikely” and disciplinary referrals made in “rare circumstances”, the institution’s University and College Union branch said that it was entirely opposed to the plans, which it likened to the “up or out” career structures used by McKinsey and other management consultancy firms, in which staff are either promoted or sacked.

“That staff would be openly threatened with the sack before they had even been hired would clearly increase casualisation and dramatically reduce job security for early career staff,” said UCU branch president David Bailey, who pointed out that the one-year probation hurdle would enable dismissals to occur within the two-year period when staff are not protected from unfair dismissal under employment law.

At a branch meeting, union members voted to move to a formal industrial dispute should university negotiators move to implement any such changes, saying that the proposed framework “would significantly undermine colleagues’ security and freedom in and beyond the workplace”.

The proposals, which also include the withdrawal of the title of reader for new applicants, are most likely to affect staff who take maternity, parental or adoption leave, or take on caring responsibilities, or wish to “challenge the decisions and attitudes of those directly or indirectly responsible for decisions about promotion”, whether individually, in departmental meetings or via trade union work, the branch agreed.

A Birmingham spokesman said that the proposals were currently open for consultation with staff and “we have already received a high level of engagement from across the institution”.

The proposed career framework, which would see early career academics become part of a peer support group involving a senior academic and senior member of professional services staff, would help staff “develop and maintain an academic culture of intellectual stimulation and high achievement”, the university said.

“To support this objective we are proposing to enhance the support and career development opportunities available. The university has made it clear to Birmingham UCU that it is committed to engaging in meaningful dialogue regarding these proposals and we are looking forward to discussing them in detail at the next available opportunity,” it added.


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