Ulster University has been ordered to pay more than £1 million in compensation to 143 former employees after an employment tribunal condemned the redundancy process that they left under as a “sham”.
The 143 staff members left the Belfast-based institution in April last year under what was described as a voluntary severance scheme, but the University and College Union said that Ulster had decided to close specific courses and research areas, and had offered redundancy packages to staff in these areas.
Employment law states that employers have a duty to collectively inform and consult with unions when embarking upon a potential redundancy process, with the aim of reaching agreements that minimise redundancies and further consequences to staff.
But the tribunal said that Ulster was guilty of a “very serious failure to consult” and that union representatives had been “kept in the dark”, first becoming aware of the proposed redundancies via the media.
The university also “misled” the union about the process, something that the UCU said forced staff to take second-rate severance deals.
The tribunal ruled that each former staff member was owed the equivalent of 90 days’ salary by the university, the highest award possible for such cases.
Sally Hunt, the UCU’s general secretary, said that Ulster should make the payments “as a matter of urgency”.
“Ulster University went out of its way to carry out what the tribunal described as a sham redundancy process and failed to engage properly with us every step of the way,” she said.
Katharine Clarke, UCU’s Northern Ireland official, said that the ruling “vindicated everything the UCU had been saying about the university’s redundancy process”.
“Our members did not volunteer for severance; they were told take an enhanced package or be dismissed with a reduced payment,” she said. “We are glad the tribunal agreed with us that this was putting a gun to our members’ heads.”
In response, Ulster said that it would “take time to consider [the ruling] carefully”.
“Mistakes have been made and we will ensure all appropriate lessons are learned,” a statement said. “A number of improvements have already been made and we are now working in a different way.
“We are committed to embedding these new ways of working through meaningful consultation with unions and staff.”