Senior managers invariably put out an eve-of-strike email to try to sow doubt in the minds of some union members before any strike. They do it last minute so that members are more likely to see the management letter than the union response. Here’s Vicky’s response on behalf of the UCU committee. It also gives detailed answers to some of the questions members have asked.
Dear UCU Members,
Please ask yourself the following three questions:
- Why is the university so keen to introduce these changes?
- Why have Senates at other universities rejected these changes? (for example Warwick, UCL)
- Why would anyone want to introduce something that has demonstrably been used at other universities to dismiss staff for reasons that we would not accept as valid?
We have incredible strength when we stand together and we write again to thank everyone for all you are doing to prepare for our strike and Teach Out – it is amazing to see so many members coming together.
We will make a real difference by turning out to strike for the full three days, with as many of you as can make it to the pickets each day. Thanks to all who have given us a heads up as to what times they can do each day – please remember to email firstname.lastname@example.org and report to the area near the Parkinson steps from 7.30am onwards tomorrow for the first one! You’ll be assigned picketing locations with other members and we will rally again at the steps at about 11.30am, before going on to the Teach Out.
Email from the Deputy VC:
We have all just received an email from our Deputy Vice Chancellor Tom Ward (sent to all Academic and Academic Related staff) offering his own perspective on yesterday’s negotiations. The principle relating to academic freedom cited by Professor Ward is precisely what we are striving to protect. We note that Professor Ward emphasised that an academic member of the University Executive Group would decide whether academic freedom is threatened in any given case. We believe that this is patently prejudicial and we do not find it at all plausible that such a member of the University’s senior managerial group would rule against the interests of management in the kinds of cases we anticipate would arise.
Many of you have already emailed us with comments and questions, which I have tried to answer in this email – please read on.
As indicated in yesterday’s email, UCU holds a different perspective on yesterday’s meeting with management and we find the DVC’s email to be a partial account of our concerns and arguments.
- The University side clarified yesterday that the conversion of our Statute procedures into Ordinances will allow future changes to be made without government oversight(by the Privy Council). We find this worrying, not least because it destabilises any notion of longevity to protections that we might secure for members in negotiation.
- The Director of HR indicated yesterday that the new ordinances might be renegotiated every year. Given the imposition this year of a watered-down Statute the staff already do not support, we think this proposition is not tenable. Academic Leadership on Statute matters to UCU, and we think this is of key concern to our members.
- In yesterday’s meeting, UCU challenged the University to provide the date on which Senate agreed that the procedures within Statute could be watered down to Ordinances.
- The DVC’s email neglects to mention the stripping away of independent legal scrutiny at Appeal Stage.
- The DVC’s email neglects to mention that the University has stripped out the key protection of the right to a wholly independent medically qualified expert (not employed by the university) on the Ill-Health Appeal panel. The previous Statute provided for “a medically qualified chair jointly agreed by the Council and the member or, in default of agreement, to be nominated by the President of the Royal College of Physicians”
Academic freedom is at the heart of this dispute, and as such many of our communications have centred on that. We have also written to explain deep concerns over the loss of other key protections for staff, for example at the Appeals stage of dismissal. We have given examples of where SOSR – the shorthand for a catch-all clause for dismissal Some Other Substantial Reason – has been used to sack staff at other universities where changes to Statutes were allowed to slip through.
Consider for a moment, that:
- SOSR was explicitly excluded from Statutes in the 1980s because it was considered to be completely inappropriate in a university setting owing to the threat it poses to academic freedom (our sector is different to many – that may be why many of you chose to work in it!)
- Academic freedom is the lifeblood of a University, without it we risk becoming a sausage factory for research with far narrower scope, and with greater restrictions in our teaching and our ability to question and test.
- The UNESCO definition of academic freedom also holds that “31. Higher-education teaching personnel should have the right and opportunity, without discrimination of any kind, according to their abilities, to take part in the governing bodies and to criticize the functioning of higher education institutions, including their own, …” – Academic and Academic Related staff must have academic freedom for a university that is a truly enriching institution that contributes to our intellectual and cultural life.
- The current draft of Statutes has all procedures written into Ordinances under an enabling Statute. This move means it would be much easier for management (however configured in future years) to drive through changes. We note this represents a particular worry in an environment of increasing privatisation and marketisation.
- Damage exerted in several universities under SOSR led to a decision at UCU national Congress that ALL changes to university Statutes must be scrutinised by the UCU National Ratification Panel (NRP) before changes could be signed off by local UCU negotiators.
- The UCU NRP shares UCU Leeds’ deep concerns over the inclusion of an SOSR clause, and the loss of independent expert chairs to several panels under proposed changes to Statutes.
- This dispute has been confirmed as holding national significance for the Higher Education sector by UCU. This is why we have been granted access to the UCU Fighting Fund – our dispute is of key significance to the sector.
- This fight is also happening at other institutions, and we have seen from examples of campaigning against the codification of SOSR (e.g. UCL and Warwick) that universities are able to proceed (as they have done for many decades) without a need to codify SOSR in their Statute.
What does academic freedom mean to you?
We appreciate that the proposed draft of Statute include sections designed to protect academic freedom, and that following suggestions from UCU to “flip the focus” to resolution, the “Procedure for the Resolution of Substantial Employment Issues” was re-written and renamed. However we remain convinced that the codification of a catch-all dismissal provision represented by 8e in this procedure undermines any such protections.
For example, ask yourself: would a difference of opinion with management regarding “direction of travel” or simply a conflict with management positions, personalities or practices, fall under academic freedom?
We note with concern that in recent circumstances where changes to service structures have been subject to critique, a view has sometimes been expressed by university management that perhaps Leeds is not a good fit for people who feel that way.
The introduction of SOSR as a ground for dismissing staff (particularly in the case of third party pressure) introduces a new potential for a dismissal to conflict with academic freedom. One might draw analogies to the potential for friction between freedom of expression and equalities legislation. When this occurs, a court of law has to determine which of the two should prevail. UCU does not want staff to have to test out their right to academic freedom in a court of law against third parties with disproportionate finances and influence. By opposing the introduction of SOSR for dismissal we resist the introduction of that potential for conflict.
It is really important to understand the significance of the protection for academic freedom offered under the current statute, which management have argued that their proposals improve. Under employment law, the employer has to show that they have a dismissal procedure which they must follow, prior to dismissal. This procedure is written down in Section 13 of the current statute and the key protection against dismissal is found at Stage 3 of the dismissal procedure, Part V, appeals, clauses 23 to 29, in particular section 27 2 which states:
“(2) The persons described in this sub-paragraph are persons not employed by the University holding, or having held, judicial office or being barristers or solicitors of at least ten years’ standing.”
Also note section 28 which, together with all the preceding disciplinary and appeal processes, ensures that the Appeal may be a lengthy affair with many pitfalls and costs for the university. The proposed changes not only introduce SOSR but streamlines the disciplinary process as currently set out so that it becomes far cheaper and easier to dismiss someone from the university point of view. This is really important because if these changes are ratified, staff will be under a greater threat of being sacked for reasons that could greatly restrict academic freedom, despite assurances offered in the new wording. We are particularly concerned about third parties being able to exert pressure on the University to stop academic work they don’t approve of, to allow these external agencies undue influence and the curtailment of what research should really be about. The way funding works already means it is harder for academics in many fields to truly follow where their research leads them. One of the key dangers with SOSR is that this will swiftly become even more ‘normal’, and that the path of research may change even before it has begun, because there may be yet more areas which are associated with greater risk of a conflict with the interests of a third party.
When we look to other institutions where SOSR has slipped through, we see that unforeseen uses of a catch-all dismissal procedure have allowed institutions to use SOSR as a way of wriggling out of paying redundancy packages to staff at the end of a fixed term contract (FTC) who would usually be eligible for this. This has already happened at the University of Bristol (Bristol UCU are among those who have been in touch to offer as much support as they can, and have expressed that they wish more of a fight had been put up). At Leeds, we have long fought for staff on FTCs and have a sector leading fixed term agreement. If SOSR has the potential to impact the usual expected rights of staff on FTCs, and to hang like a spectre over particular groups of FTC academics facing impossible targets, we need to be worried. At yesterday’s meeting, management offered verbal reassurance that the Fixed Term agreement would hold, but this is not cross-referenced within the current draft.
It is for all these reasons that we stand together to strike for three days, beginning tomorrow. We have strength, and we are using it to show that there are alternatives to the proposed worrying changes to the governance of our University.
See you on the picket lines!
Vicky, with solidarity, on behalf of UoL UCU Committee