Senior managers at University College London are facing opposition over proposals to change an element of its constitution, a move union members have called a threat to academic freedom.
The university has put forward plans to reform Statute 18, a part of the constitution that in effect helps to protect academic staff from the threat of redundancy by making it difficult to dismiss them. The statute was added to create a de facto tenure system at the institution in the wake of the Education Reform Act 1988, which abolished formal tenure in law. It applies only to academic staff.
The university says it wants to reform the statute in an effort to “strengthen the protection of academic freedom while removing procedures that are no longer consistent with current employment legislation and practice”.
Under the plans, heads of department would conduct redundancy consultations guided by a dedicated committee of UCL’s council set up to advise on academic freedom in matters relating to redundancy, discipline and grievances. Staff would not be able to appeal the committee’s decisions.
The proposals are the second attempt at reform after management faced opposition earlier in the year to plans that would have transferred the power to make staff redundant to individual managers.
“The point of Statute 18 is that it makes it sufficiently arduous for the university to dismiss staff that they would have to have damn good reason to do so,” said Sean Wallis, University and College Union branch secretary at UCL. He said that a new system could make it easier for research metrics and student approval ratings to be used as grounds for dismissal.
Although he added that academic jobs at UCL were not currently under threat, uncertainty created by the new tuition fee regime and the large investments planned for a new East London campus in Stratford meant that robust protection was critical.
King’s College London and Queen Mary, University of London are among institutions that have already changed their statutes, making dismissal procedures easier, Mr Wallis said. “We’ve got an advantage. We’ve seen what happens when [universities start] saying, ‘We need to close this, we want to open that.’ We’ve haven’t got a crystal ball, but we can recognise…the dangers…”
At a 28 November meeting, UCL’s council voted not to press ahead with the current proposals. It referred the issue back to the academic board, which will now set up a working party to discuss the future of the statute, including options for extending the statute to cover all staff.
Previous meetings on the issue generated heated discussion, with the union criticising Malcolm Grant, UCL’s provost, after he was said to have shouted at a member of the board during an attempt to bypass the chairman and instigate a show-of-hands vote.
Professor Grant, who chaired the meeting of the academic board on 22 October, said later in a newsletter to staff that he had behaved “less diplomatically than I would have wished”.
In an open letter to Professor Grant sent on 24 November, Bill Stephenson, former UCL academic and outgoing leader of Harrow Council, said the fight to retain the statute was “for the heart and soul of a wonderful institution”.
He called on Professor Grant - whom he otherwise commended as an outstanding provost - to pull back from the proposals as “absolutely the right thing to do for UCL”.