Union fears for freedom as governance talks halt

March 26, 2009

Fears that academic freedom may be under threat at Scottish universities prompted an emergency motion at last week's University and College Union Scotland Congress.

The motion was passed unanimously after the breakdown of talks between the UCU and some of the country's oldest universities over a new model of governance.

It followed a letter from UCU Scotland to Fiona Hyslop, the Scottish Education Secretary, that calls on the Government to intervene and resurrect the talks.

Union members feared that attempts to agree a new statute, setting out sector-wide standards in employment, redundancy, dismissal and grievance procedures, would now fail. And they warn in the letter that academic freedom may be threatened as university managers set increasingly rigid standards of performance required by academics.

The letter to Ms Hyslop says the "spectacular collapse" of the talks between pre-1992 universities and UCU Scotland did not undermine the progress already made in drawing up a model statute for the sector.

The motion condemned the "unilateral decision of the university secretaries ... to terminate these discussions at a point when UCU and the employers were close to agreement on a new model statute".

It singles out the University of Stirling for criticism, saying that no joint discussions have taken place in spite of serious concerns about plans to change the academic staff statute.

"Congress condemns the university's proposal to deregulate academic freedom, by placing a hollow general statement about academic freedom in the university charter, while downgrading the entire academic staff statute to the level of an ordinance, where it can be butchered free of public regulatory control," it says.

Delegates at the congress also call for an independent review of higher education funding in Scotland in a second motion, which echoes fears about academic freedom.

It welcomes the abolition of up-front student fees but expresses concern at the Government's failure to increase public funding for Scottish universities in the face of increasing competition from fee-funded English institutions.

The motion, also passed unanimously, adds that some in university management in Scotland have an "overtly pro-business agenda" that has negative implications for the ethos of academic freedom.

hannah.fearn@tsleducation.com.

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