The University of Leeds’ Vice-Chancellor has defended changes to its employment rules which critics say will threaten academic freedom and freedom of speech.
Sir Alan Langlands said it was “regrettable” that the University and College Union (UCU) was organising a ballot over possible strike action in response to the statute changes.
[It] threatens the principled disagreement which is essential to academic freedom and would risk the heart of what a university should be – a community of ideas debated openly without outside interference.Statement from the UCU
The current university statutes lay out grounds for fair dismissal which include redundancy, capability, ill health and conduct, but university management want to introduce an additional ‘some other substantial reason’ clause.
This could include grounds for dismissal such as conflict of interest, breakdown in trust and confidence, ‘third party pressure’, mistake or ignorance of law.
UCU officials say the proposals are an erosion of workers’ rights and describe them as “a threat to academic freedom at the university”.
They claim third party pressure could arise, for example, if a staff member published research that portrayed a company associated with the university in a negative light.
The union said in a statement: “Allowing third party pressure or workplace disagreement as grounds for dismissal threatens the principled disagreement which is essential to academic freedom and would risk the heart of what a university should be – a community of ideas debated openly without outside interference.”
The University Executive Group, which includes the Vice-Chancellor, were originally to be exempt from these changes, but after an outcry from staff senior management reversed the decision and the new dismissal clause will now apply to all academic staff.
After negotiations between staff and management broke down, the Leeds branch of the UCU is rallying its members to organise a ballot for strike action.
In response, Sir Alan released a statement to staff which said: “The changes to Statute VII protect and enshrine the principle of academic freedom.
“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.
“There is a great deal on which we agree with UCU in relation to changes to Statute VII. It is therefore regrettable that UCU has declared a dispute and is threatening a ballot which might lead to industrial action.”
Unless negotiations resume, a poll will determine whether UCU decide to take industrial action.
Similar issues have arisen at other universities around the country. At Warwick University, staff are disputing changes that would mean heads of department and senior management, rather than an independent council, decide academic redundancy issues.