'Permanent' staff claim they are treated like contract employees as academy faces closure. Tony Tysome reports
The imminent closure of the high-profile National Academy for Gifted and Talented Youth at Warwick University has raised questions across higher education about the job security of staff whose positions are supported by short-term external funding.
Union leaders warned this week that Warwick's decision to make 40 staff compulsorily redundant could herald a tough new stance being taken by employers in response to recent efforts to protect contract-funded jobs.
Warwick chose not to bid to renew its five-year contract with the Department for Education and Skills to run the academy after the DfES decided to separate management of education for gifted and talented youth from delivery.
Now academy staff, some of whom took up what they believed were permanent posts as late as last October, have been told they will be made redundant at the end of the DfES contract in August.
Union leaders at Warwick claim that although academy staff are theoretically permanent employees of the university, they are being treated as though they are fixed-term contract workers.
They say Warwick has gone through the motions of consulting on job losses, but made little effort to redeploy academy staff within the university - even though Warwick is considering setting up its own International Gifted and Talented Academy at some point after the end of the DfES contract.
Ken Flint, vice-president of the Warwick branch of the University and College Union, said: "Some UCU members feel they were misled into believing that they had a permanent position, when there was every possibility that they could lose their jobs if the contract was not renewed."
One academy staff member, who asked not to be named, claimed that the university was not doing enough to help redeploy staff and that they should be shown more preferential treatment. "We have been thrown onto the open jobs market," they said.
A similar issue has arisen at Birmingham University, where staff who have been moved from fixed-term to open contracts have been warned by their employers that they could still be out of a job when funding for the contract they are working on ends.
A letter was issued to academics who were moved onto open contracts as part of a process designed to meet the requirements of European laws.
It warns: "In the event that sufficient funding ceases to be available, then the university will need to review your employment."
Sue Blackwell, a UCU representative at Birmingham, said: "Some members are asking whether it makes any difference being transferred to an open contract if you could still lose your job when the contract funding ends.
There is a big question mark hanging over all of these cases. We are not yet sure what it will mean for people's job security."
Roger Kline, UCU's head of equality and employment rights, suggested the union might need to mount a legal challenge in cases where employers are evidently treating "permanent" staff differently if they work in a part of an institution that is supported by an external contract.
A Birmingham spokesperson said it had "already taken action to reduce the numbers of people on fixed-term contracts. When a fixed-term contract is due to end, the university does everything in its power to find alternative employment for those affected."
A Warwick spokesman said that from August last year new staff were offered either indefinite contracts stating that the position depended upon continued funding for the Academy or fixed-term contracts. He said the university was taking steps to redeploy academy staff facing redundancy.