Statute ViII: Email from the Vice-Chancellor, 21 April 2017

This note provides an update on the current position and reiterates the key facts from my previous note, and sets out my conclusions on this issue.

Dear Colleague,

I wrote to you on 22 March to put the record straight on concerns raised by the University and College Union (UCU) about the University's proposals to update Statute VII, which sets out the procedures which apply to academic and academic related (professional & managerial) staff for the resolution of grievances, and for dismissal, removal from office and redundancy.

The focus of ongoing discussions is on a procedure which may in rare circumstances be followed for the dismissal of a member of staff for 'contravention or some other substantial reason' (SOSR), part of the Employment Rights Act 1996, which is a consolidation act and the main reference point for current UK employment law.

This note provides an update on the current position and reiterates the key facts from my previous note, and sets out my conclusions on this issue.

Update
The matter was discussed fully at the meeting of the Senate (our academic authority) on 22 March and at the meeting of the University Council (our governing body) on 30 March.   The Council confirmed as a matter of principle that the University should not put itself in a position where it could never use SOSR.   The Council also deferred its decision on the full package of changes to Statute VII until its planned meeting on 26 April, giving one final opportunity to reach agreement on this matter with the support of Acas, the independent conciliation service.

The University originally offered on 27 February to go to Acas and made itself available on every working day thereafter.   The UCU delayed, but finally agreed to attend an Acas meeting on 20 April.   It also opened a ballot for industrial action on the same day, having notified me of this on 12 April.

In the event, the University and the UCU did not reach a resolution at the Acas meeting yesterday.   The University and the UCU will meet again on Monday 24 April.

Key Facts
In view of the way in which the threat of industrial action has been used to undermine locally agreed procedures for dispute resolution, I want to repeat the four key facts set out in my previous e-mail:

1.  The changes to Statute VII protect and enshrine the principle of academic freedom.   Every time Statute VII or related ordinances or procedures are used, academic freedom is a principle that must be adhered to.

2.  We are not proposing to introduce new grounds for dismissal.   The existing Statute itself does not prevent the University from dismissing staff for any reason permitted in law (specifically the Employment Rights Act 1996), including SOSR.   All that we are seeking to do is to ensure that there are clear and transparent procedures for the dismissal of staff for any of the reasons permitted in law.

3.  All grounds for dismissal in the Employment Rights Act 1996, including SOSR, apply to the University Executive Group (UEG) as they do to other categories of staff.   The principles and protections of academic freedom also cover members of the UEG.   The potential confusion caused by the wording of one section of the original draft was missed by both parties during the negotiations;  that section was reworded to ensure clarity.

4.  Existing checks and balances that prevent any abuse of procedures will remain:  potential dismissal cases will be heard by a three person committee, including a member of the University Council and a member of the Senate, with a subsequent right of appeal.

Conclusion
There is a great deal on which the University agrees with the UCU in relation to the changes to Statute VII.

However, SOSR seems to be at the nub of the disagreement.   Our understanding is that the UCU accepts that SOSR is a legitimate reason for dismissal within the law and that, whilst the University has a right to use this reason in carefully judged circumstances, it does not accept that the procedure for using it should be set out in the statutes and/or ordinances – the key constitutional instruments of the University.

The University believes that this is unfair to staff.   It asserts that employment rights should be clear and that they should be applied fairly.   In particular we echo section 94 of the Employment Rights Act that:  ‘An employee has the right not to be unfairly dismissed by their employer’.   The onus is on the employer to show the reason for dismissal.   The University therefore has a duty to act with integrity – operating within the law and to the highest ethical standards.   In these circumstances, we believe there should be clear and transparent procedures for dismissal of staff for all reasons permitted in law.   This is the position adopted by many universities.

I hope that the meeting on Monday can finally reach agreement on this matter and I regret that it will be conducted against the background of a dispute initiated by the UCU and under the threat of possible industrial action.   This is in contrast to the conciliatory approach taken by the University at the Acas meeting at which it suggested a number of additional safeguards that could be included in the procedure for dismissal of a member of staff for 'contravention or some other substantial reason’.

There are a great many uncertainties facing higher education at present but, in the face of these, the University is progressing extremely well by maintaining its focus on excellence in student education, world leading research and extending our international reach.   We are a university that places academic freedom front and centre, respects employment rights and lives by our values of integrity, inclusiveness, community and professionalism.   At its meeting on 26 April, I will be advising the Council to continue in this way and to agree a final package of changes to Statute VII.

At a personal level, I will continue to act in good faith, recommending what I believe to be in the best interests of the students and staff of the University as a whole.   I hope that agreement can be reached on this matter – even at the eleventh hour – and that the threat of industrial action will recede.

Best wishes,

Alan Langlands
Vice-Chancellor