UEL pledges review after settling with sacked union members

University settles or reinstates five scholars but insists union membership was not a factor in redundancy process

March 1, 2023
The University and College Union (UCU) lecturer strike protestors holding banners with one reading 'not your minions' to illustrate UEL pledges review after settling with sacked union members
Source: Alamy

A London university has denied that union membership was a factor in selecting academics for redundancy after a settlement reached with a former professor it sacked resulted in the institution pledging to review its redundancy policy.

In the early days of the pandemic in 2020, the University of East London initiated a restructuring process to cut costs and subsequently announced plans for 10 compulsory redundancies, seven among academic staff. The University and College Union said at the time that “four of the seven academics facing the sack” were “UCU activists, including the branch chair and vice-chair”.

Corinne Squire, a professor of social sciences, was among those made redundant. After Professor Squire, a UCU member who had raised internal criticisms of the university’s restructuring plans, started an employment tribunal case against UEL, the university settled claims of “unfair dismissal, discrimination and whistleblowing”, “without admission of liability”. Professor Squire has since taken up a post as chair in global inequalities at the University of Bristol.

In a post on UEL’s staff website, Joseph Cooper, the university’s director of people and culture, said the settlement “has enabled both parties to move forward and avoid the impact of proceeding to a final hearing”. UEL “has agreed to undertake a review of its managing change and redundancy policy”, he added.

Times Higher Education understands that two other academics who had been at risk of redundancy, both officers in the UCU branch, have been retained, while two further academics – one an officer in the union branch, another a member who was critical of restructuring – have settled disputes with the university.

Gargi Bhattacharyya, professor of sociology at UEL and chair of the UCU branch, who has remained in post despite having been under threat of redundancy, said the university’s own human resources staff had warned it not to fight Professor Squire’s case because it would lose at tribunal.

“Instead, the university pursued it and spent God knows how much money on legal fees. They always knew they would have to settle with Corinne either inside or outside of tribunal,” Professor Bhattacharyya added. Pursuing the case amounted to “extreme misgovernance” and a “wilful waste of resources”, they argued.

On the wider issues, Professor Bhattacharyya said it was “important that vice-chancellors and senior management in universities are encouraged to understand that these are not their fiefdoms and the budgets of universities are not to be used for vendettas; but instead [they] are supposed to run a public service with the proper probity of that responsibility”.

Amanda Sackur, a UCU regional support official, said the settlements should “bring a sense of closure to staff that have been forced to go through a lengthy and stressful process”.

“It should, however, never have come to this, and we hope the institution will carry out a full and open review, with input from staff and trade unions, to put in place proper procedures and ensure nothing like this happens again,” she said.

Asked for comment, UEL said: “While we cannot comment on individual cases, we went through a university restructure back in 2020 and all staff were treated fairly, with transparent and equitable due process.

“Our processes are designed so that all employees, regardless of union status, are treated equally and fairly, and there is no substance to any suggestion that union membership has been a factor in any restructuring process.”


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