Universities are introducing staff "capability" policies as a way of managing lecturers' performance outside disciplinary procedures, according to the University and College Union.
A motion to be debated at the UCU annual congress at the end of May notes that Newcastle University and other institutions have introduced capability procedures despite the union's "strong reservations".
"There is extensive experience in further education suggesting that this procedure will be used punitively," the motion says. It claims that capability procedures are "another example arising from the application of performance management techniques first introduced in the private sector, which has nothing to do with academia".
Universities say the procedures are needed to manage staff performance rather than misconduct issues. The UCU believes disciplinary procedures can be used for both.
A spokesman from the union's northern regional committee, which is proposing the motion, said: "These procedures are a micromanagement tool. They have been used in further education as a fast-track way to get rid of people, instead of the disciplinary process. We've heard of one university where capability procedures were used against an academic who was not publishing in the right journals."
Capability also fed into the appraisal process, the union spokesman said, with "appraisal being moved away from career development". For example, information from student questionnaires was being used to question capability in appraisal, he said.
A Newcastle spokesperson said the development and implementation of its capability policy had been carried out in negotiation with all campus trade unions.
Garry Coupland, the assistant director of human resources, said: "Monitoring performance is nothing other than normal good practice for an organisation. The emphasis of the policy ... is on the identification of any issues that might hinder an individual in performing their role to the expected standard, and therefore it allows the university to provide the appropriate support."
He said the policy was "certainly not about a 'fast track' to dismissal", rather it "protects the interests of staff by identifying a number of support measures, such as additional training and development, mentors or buddies, occupational health support, technological aids and varying the responsibilities of the job".
Dismissal would only ever be a last resort, he said, and staff would have the right to representation in the formal stages of the procedure.
University College London already has a capability policy, while Imperial College London is introducing one, and is in discussions with the union's Imperial branch.
The policy is to be used when an employee is "experiencing difficulties in sustaining an acceptable level of performance in the quantity and quality of their work despite genuine effort", an Imperial draft document says.
The union has been told that the procedure could be used in cases where a lecturer was refusing to keep up to date or where an academic was out of the habit of making research proposals.
The UCU says that both such situations could be dealt with under current disciplinary procedures because they are not issues of capability but examples of a member of staff determined not to fulfil contractual duties.
John McMullen, partner at Watson Burton LLP, said it is not easier to remove staff for underperformance than it is to remove them for misconduct. "However, there is an understandable fear from the UCU because this strikes at the autonomy of the individual that academics are used to."