Union alarm as pre-92s demolish statutes

July 20, 2007

Academics' historic employment rights are being eroded, The Times Higher has learnt.

At Salford University, union leaders are complaining that as part of governance reforms, the university is in the process of removing provisions from its governing statutes that cover disciplinary, grievance and redundancy procedures - the so-called "model statute" that has provided rights and privileges in pre-1992 universities for decades.

The "model statute" has also been removed from the statutes at City University, where a working party has now been set up to agree employment rights in the next six months.

And in reforms due to take effect on August 1, Essex University has also downgraded the employment rights statute.

Pre-1992 universities set up under Royal Charter have statutes setting out clear rules under which they should conduct their affairs, such as the powers and structure of their governing bodies.

Universities needed permission from the Privy Council to amend or drop any statutes, but in its January 2003 White Paper the Government said this could represent "an unnecessary burden".

Last year, Higher Education Minister Bill Rammell recommended that universities shift several provisions from statutes and into less rigid "ordinances", which can be altered quickly by university governing bodies.

But he said that the Privy Council should retain control over the model statute, as it was a key area of public interest. The model statute sets out the principles of "justice and fairness" in university procedures, as well as enshrining the principle of academic freedom.

In a briefing paper to staff, Salford's branch of the University and College Union said: "The new statutes run to just four pages compared to 31 in the old.

"Procedures for academic staff regulating grievances, dismissal, redundancy, discipline, and removal from office are no longer in the statutes.

"There are two justifications for this: one, it makes it easy to make changes in the future and two, academic staff will no longer have special privileges. We are also concerned that what may eventually be proposed will be a considerable worsening of our terms and conditions of employment."

A spokesman for Salford said the university had been in consultation with the campus unions on the constitutional changes since March and had already made some changes to reflect the union's concerns.

"The university has undertaken to continue discussions with the campus trade unions including the UCU on matters including the employment provisions," he said.

"These talks are planned to take place between October 2007 and April 2008," the spokesman said.

"The new constitution enshrines a commitment to academic freedom and to equality and diversity... In the spirit of the commitment to equality of opportunity, the new constitution enshrines principles of parity of esteem and treatment for all members of the university."

City University's spokeswoman said that its charter and statutes "no longer include the model statute". She said the model statute, with "minor revisions" had been "for the time being" transferred into the university's ordinances. The university has agreed with its campus unions to set up a working party "to discuss future arrangements."

Essex University said its model statute had been moved "wholesale" into ordinances without being altered.

FROM ROYAL CHARTER TO QUICK FIX

  • Pre-1992 universities were created by Royal Charter. Changes to a university's charter and statutes require Privy Council approval, whereas changes to lesser "ordinances" can be made by a university's governing body.
  • On the advice of Government, a number of pre-92 institutions are attempting to move key provisions into ordinances to improve their ability to manage their own affairs.
  • The "model statute", which was incorporated into all statutes under the 1988 Education Reform Act, spells out key procedural rights covering redundancy, discipline, dismissal and grievance. The model statute was designed to guarantee "justice and fairness".

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