Warwick’s academic staff overwhelmingly rejected the proposed changes to the University’s employment regulations at an assembly last Friday 12 May. The Statute 24 reform is set to radically simplify the dismissal process for academics.
The assembly, which comprised of over 140 members of academic staff, voted 97 percent in favour of a motion to rethink the proposed changes to the statute, with no one speaking against it even after being invited to do so.
The motion to challenge to the statute reform was proposed by Professor Jimmy Donaghey and Dr Jonathan Davies, of Warwick’s Business School and History Department respectively. The challenge accused the reform of jeopardising both academic freedom and job security.
The reform came under criticism for facilitating the dismissal process, potentially making it vulnerable to conflicts of interest, third party pressures, insufficient funding, lack of publication and criticisms of management.
However, the changes have been bid by management as a move to “simplify, clarify and modernise” to governing structure of the University.
Press and Policy Director Peter Dunn added: “There is need to ensure clarity on delegated authorities within our systems, and both the University and our trades unions recognise the need for our statutory provisions to be brought in line with modern employment law obligations and practices.”
Professor Donaghey, who likened the University’s plans to a “race to the bottom,” argued that the plans were “levelling downwards and not upwards” as well as limiting “the ability of academic staff to by free thinkers.”
Universities are not above the law, and they should not try to amend their statutes to circumvent it.
Liz Morrish, independent academic
Speakers at the assembly highlighted how the changes might jeopardise academic freedom by discouraging researchers to focus on less lucrative studies or ask “inconvenient” questions at the risk of their continued employment. They also questioned whether the reforms were necessary and cited the contentious relationship between academics and management during the tenure of the previous Vice-Chancellor, Nigel Thrift.
Professor Saul Jacka, statistician and member of the University Senate, expressed concerns that while the proposals might be harmless in time of benign management, there was no guarantee that a future regime would operate in the same way.
Liz Morrish, an independent scholar whose talk at an earlier emergency meeting was cancelled, also attacked the reform in a script later published on her blog: “If our role is to defend democratic values in the public sphere, we should be able to model that within our own walls.”
“Are employees obliged to be on good terms with “the University” at all times, even if its management does things they don’t agree with? Some of us know from experience that that any form of controversy or critique can be regarded by management as causing reputational damage.”
“That might lead to a charge of gross misconduct, and as far as I can see, the most likely outcome for that is instant dismissal. But universities are not above the law, and they should not try to amend their statutes to circumvent it.”
A university such as Warwick which aspires to be world-leading should not be undermining academic freedom and eroding the job security of the staff on whom that reputation rests.
Justine Mercer, Warwick UCU President
Citing the nine-month suspension of Thomas Docherty, Professor of English and Comparative Literature in 2014, following controversial opinion pieces for Times Higher Education alongside “projecting negative body language, making ‘ironic’ comments and sighing during interviews,” Dr Morrish defended staff’s right to legal representation.
Warwick’s University and College Union (UCU) President, Justine Mercer, noted the union’s five-month negotiations with University management and alternative statute proposals, commenting: “This is a hugely important victory. The proposals which are on the table will seriously erode job security and academic freedom.”
“A university such as Warwick which aspires to be world-leading should not be undermining academic freedom and eroding the job security of the staff on whom that reputation rests.”
The assembly’s motion is set to be formally reported at the next University Council meeting. In the meantime, the UCU is recruiting more signatories for its petition to “save our statute,” which has so far received the backing of nearly 500 supporters from a range of universities both in the UK and internationally.
Parallel conflicts over employment statutes have taken place at other universities across the country, including Reading, Leeds and York, where critics say the reform is a threat to academic freedom and freedom of speech.