STAFF at Ulster University Business School have accused the university of denying them basic employment rights after attempts to implement new contracts for all fixed-term contract staff, writes Phil Baty.
Staff were told in a memo late last month they would be required to sign new two-year contracts. The contracts include waiver clauses excluding claims for unfair dismissal and redundancy payment. For some the new deal will mean a reduction of the contract period.
The staff were told that funding for posts is available until December 31, 1998. "Should further funding not become available, then the contract will be terminated using the notice period," the memo said.
Charlie Ferguson, a senior lecturer at the business school, has been a leading critic of the university's personnel policy, which he says has bred "intense insecurity". Mr Ferguson argues that a disproportionately high number of the school's 70 staff are on fixed-term contracts, including about 26 academic or academic-related staff.
Six people are known to have refused to sign the new contract.
Trevor Smith, vice chancellor of the University of Ulster, declined to comment. But in a brief statement, a university spokesman claimed the changes had "been met with widespread approval". "People who were on fixed-term contracts have now been moved to two-year renewable contracts. The staff now have the security of knowing their contract is renewable and cannot come to an abrupt end as it could under the old system."
Terry McKnight, branch secretary of the Association of University Teachers reported receiving several unexpected membership inquiries from business school staff in the past fortnight. "Things are coming to a head," he said. "Most staff in the business school are not union members. The AUT wants an end to fixed-term contracts full stop and is pushing for proper permanent jobs.
"The AUT has an agreement with the university that fixed-term contracts are used only in very specific circumstances," added Dr McKnight. "For example, when the area of work is being wound down."
But Mr Ferguson insists the school is financially strong. "The school is a financial gem and I would challenge anyone to say that it does not have a healthy future ahead of it."