Staff safeguard scrapped as power to sack is made easier

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Many members of staff are feeling concerned over new employment procedures being introduced at the University.

The reforms to the University’s existing employment protocol, set out in Statute 20 of the University’s Charter, began in 2007 but no final resolution has been decided yet. But in March of this year University Senate voted to scrap Statute 20, despite no decision on what would replace it being made.

Bowland College Principal, Joe Thornberry was “very disappointed” in Senate’s decision, adding: “I think what was interesting was that the bulk of that opposition [to scrapping Statute 20] came from the colleges and from LUSU, with a handful of academic heads of departments supporting it.

The majority of faculty, the Heads of Department, and so on, voted in favour of scrapping Statute 20. I’m just assuming that Heads of Departments want to have these powers to dismiss their colleagues.”

The proposed changes will for the most part, include changing the previous more complicated procedures to just six procedures relating to employment – discipline, grievances, capability, the use of fixed term contracts, redeployment and redundancy – and will make redundancies and dismissals the responsibilities of more people, including heads of departments.

These changes are necessary because of a need for clarity and uniformity across employment procedures, according to Fiona Aiken, the University Secretary. “We want all staff to be covered by the same employment procedures, and we want those procedures to be compliant with employment legislation. At present we have different sets of procedures for different staff groups.”

She continued, “In the case of academic staff in particular, the procedures have been determined by the Statute, which is now 22 years out of date and has been overtaken by improvements in the law,” referring to clashes in the old Statute which did not comply with disability discrimination legislation, the ACAS code for dealing with academic staff grievances, and the rights for staff with fixed term contracts.”

However, the University had to run all of these changes by with the local branch of the University & Colleges Union (UCU). Lancaster UCU oppose the changes, because they feel they make the dismissals of staff too easy, and that this may have a detrimental impact on staff morale.

Though the changes are to employment procedures, this does not mean that students will not be affected. Many students who have jobs with the University will be covered by these changes in terms of their employment. But some fear that the impact may not stop there.

Alan Whitaker, senior lecturer in the Centre for the Study of Technology and Organisation and a member of Lancaster UCU says: “There is an increasing likelihood that courses will be cut and/or modified as the University seeks to restructure its academic and other activities,” speaking in reference to the changes taking place in FASS and LEC.

“The teaching experience and student choice may change and become more impoverished and restricted.” He added that fewer teaching staff would mean larger groups and less contact time, and that some degree courses may be in danger of being scrapped.”

He added that the effects were not just academic: “Look at how Student Support and Welfare Services are currently being squeezed, as they refocus and look at what they can do with the likelihood of fewer staff and resources.”

The issue of the changes to Statute 20 was largely brought to the attention of students in November, when LUSU and UCU proposed a relationship of “mutual support” with regards to the Fairer Fees and Funding campaign, and opposition to the proposed changes to the employment procedures of the University.

In last year’s Summer term, and Standing Redundancy Committee was set up, something which was against the rules laid out in Statute 20. At this time, it was claimed that it was unclear as to whether any redundancies would be necessary, and this is why UCU felt that the committee should not have been set up.

It is also considered that with the cuts from HEFCE, many jobs may be cut across the University – it is likely that these changes have done little to ease the minds of many members of staff, who may be speculating that their jobs are in danger.

Aiken claims that the changes, as well as falling into line with legislation since the original Statute, will make the employment procedures simpler for staff to understand and use: “What staff should see are new procedures which are clearer and simpler to use, which are the same, regardless of the staff group they are in, and which have an emphasis on speedy resolution of issues.”

She stressed that the changes will not mean more job cuts, stating that “the University has always had the powers necessary to cut jobs if it needed to (in law and in Statute 20), and these changes are not being made with that in mind.

The discussions with the trade unions about the new procedures have been going on since 2007 and predate the current recession and cuts in the funding of universities.”

However, Whitaker was less defensive of the cuts that are going on now, speaking off staff on “indefinite contracts” who are at risk of redundancy. Further to this, Rory Daly, the Secretary of Lancaster UCU, spoke of the current situation in the Department of Continuing Education:

“Although the majority of redundancies at the moment are staff on fixed term contracts – so they will have been aware this was a possible/likely outcome – we are now seeing staff on indefinite contracts receiving ‘at risk of redundancy letters’. Last term 17 staff in the Department of Continuing Education received these letters – 60% of the staff there are on indefinite contracts.”

He continued: “These new policies make further, similar events much more likely.”
Thornberry also spoke over the change of the protections in place of academic staff in the proposed changes: “Academic and academic related staff do not have any additional protections against redundancies and dismissals; they’ve got the legal minimum, and that’s it.”

He was also keen to stress how the lack of decision over what will replace Statute 20 may make some people more wary about speaking out against University management in the future: “It means that the University becomes a less open place than it was before. It’s an inhibition to free discussion, free speech and being bloody awkward, which I think is part of what students and academics should be doing. There are so few places left in society where people can be that. It’s not just this university – it’s universities across the sector.

Whitaker voiced his concerns over how the University was spending its money. Speaking of recent appointments, specifically that of Anthony Marsella, the Director of Marketing & External Linkages, he remarked: “It’s interesting though that we seemed to have managed to find the money to recruit more and more highly paid senior managers, often with little experience of the HE sector.”

He added: “Lancaster is not alone in such appointments, it’s become a growing feature of the sector but [it is] often hard to identify the value they bring.”
In an e-newsletter sent out to members of Lancaster UCU on 23rd March, the fears of many over the changes were explained.

“It is going to be easier from now on for the University management to make staff redundant,” this bulletin told its members, explaining the feeling among UCU members that jobs were more at risk than they were before these reforms, adding, “In the new drafts, the rules will make it easier for managers – including your own line manager – to dismiss staff members.”

In this newsletter, members of UCU were encouraged to question their managers about how they had voted when the changes had been brought to University Senate, and why they may have voted to scrap Statute 20, before the changes to it had been properly agreed upon, and when it may jeopardise the jobs of colleagues.

While the drafts were being discussed, UCU tried to amend some of the proposed changes in order to protect the rights of staff, which they felt were being taken away. It was successful in particular in making changes to the grievance procedures, but less so on the others; the other five procedures are described to “ultimately end in dismissal” by UCU, and are the ones that are felt to put staff jobs in most danger.

Daly described the proposed changes as “diminishing of job security and an ill conceived decentralisation of power – too many people will have the power to discipline and dismiss staff.”

It remains to be seen whether the proposed changes will replace Statute 20, but UCU still intent to oppose them. Daly added, “We will present the policies to our members for their opinion later this term. We are very grateful to members of LUSU who have voiced their concerns about these changes at various university meetings.”

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