Update: UCL’s new Provost Michael Arthur has formally withdrawn the senior management proposals to alter Statute 18, and has also expressed his willingness to discuss the alternative proposals created by staff and students to strengthen and extend academic freedom protections. Congratulations to everyone who participated in the campaign! Read more.
What is Statute 18 and why should I care?
Statute 18 is a 17-page section of UCL’s Charter and Statutes, the governing documents of the University.
UCL are proposing wholesale changes to Statute 18 that will fundamentally alter the character of the university, and ultimately threaten jobs, courses and entire departments with cuts and closure.
Shutting entire departments, closing courses and embarking on programmes of mass redundancies is impractical for UCL Management as long as Statute 18 is in place, so why are UCL management so keen to reform it over the summer break?
More about Statute 18
Statute 18 sets out academic staff’s rights and lays out the procedure through which they can be made redundant or dismissed on capability grounds. It also guarantees a certain level of protection for academic staff against redundancy and other forms of dismissal. In the past, this protection for academics was detailed in law by something called Academic Tenure. This was the case until the late 1980’s when tenure was formally abolished by the Thatcher Government through the Education Reform Act 1988 and Universities were forced to make their own provision. Universities up and down the country then wrote and adopted their own statutes and clauses that detailed the status of academic staff in universities. Statute 18 has since been in force and provides academic staff with much of the same protection that was enjoyed previously in law.
Statute 18 is so important because the power to make redundancies is directly delegated from UCL Council. UCL Council oversees the procedure from start to finish and is ultimately accountable for the political decisions that are taken to dismiss staff. Under the new procedure UCL Council is not directly accountable for the action that is taken on its behalf and there is no guarantee that it can fulfil its chartered responsibility to protect academic freedom.
Who are ‘academic staff’?
For the purposes of Statute 18 the definition of academic staff is limited to anyone with the title of Lecturer, Reader or Professor, both clinical and non-clinical, this means staff with an academic function, but with none of these titles enjoy none of the added protection that Statute 18 offers.
Wait, why do academic staff need protection from redundancy anyway?
To preserve academic freedom. If academic staff could be made redundant by Deans or Heads of Department, this would put pressure on academic staff to pursue ‘safe research’. Would you want to publicly disagree with someone that has the power to remove you from your job? With new ways to measure the usefulness of research like the REF (Research Excellence Framework) academics would be even further inclined to stick to what’s safe and uncontroversial if making people redundant could be used as a tool by mid-level managers to make their department perform better.
The REF is not a benign tool that assesses the quality of research but measures its usefulness through arbitrary statistics like the number of citations that a paper receives or publications in mainstream journals. Forcing academics to comply with this system and produce ‘REF friendly’ research is far from encouraging excellent research.
In the university community there needs to be strong safeguards against redundancies, without them a university ceases to properly function as an independent academic community.
What’s happening with Statute 18?
In April 2012, UCL Management made public its intention to reform Statute 18. UCL have since initiated a formal consultation procedure with UCL staff over the Summer Term, and the proposed changes will be voted on by UCL Council on the 1st October.
The proposal by UCL management is to delete most of the provisions of Statute 18 and streamline the redundancy procedure. The new ‘Termination Procedure’ makes academic staff jobs more precarious and transfers the responsibility for the redundancy procedure away from UCL Council and places it in the hands of Department and Faculty management.
Is this bad for students?
Yes. A healthy learning environment is one where many ideas freely challenge each other; the reforms to Statute 18 will only serve to restrict academic plurality - these changes could fundamentally alter the relationships between students and their lecturers. Where academics and academic related staff are not free to criticise and publish for fear of their jobs the student experience will inevitably suffer. Moreover, entire courses and departments which are perceived to be underperforming in the REF or are not financially viable for the University will be much more likely to face cuts or closure where academics are more easily dismissed.
Getting rid of the protection that Statute 18 provides makes it easier to make cuts and change the way entire departments work in the name of saving money. That means firing your teachers and Principal Investigators, larger lecture sizes, cutting your contact hours and breaking up your research groups. Where other Russell Group Universities have removed similar Statute protections they have already gone on to make compulsory academic redundancies.
UCL are not secretive about their ambitions to realise their plans. In the UCL White Paper (a long-term strategy document for the University) they have made clear the intention to - at a bare minimum - restructure departments necessity of the financial instability that the market in tuition fees creates.
At King’s College London an unfair dismissal of a staff member took six years and the entire process was chaired by a high court judge. In 2010 after they removed protection similar to that provided by Statute 18 at UCL. They launched a campaign of mass redundancies and restructuring and closure of departments, shutting down courses and caking lecturers. Such drastic action simply would not have been possible
Why is this bad for academic freedom?
If responsibility for the redundancy procedure is transferred to lower level management then academic staff would be nominated for dismissal by Heads of Department or Deans, potentially academics in their own field putting them under unfair pressure to avoid disagreement for fear of their jobs.
Departments are already under pressure to prove their performance in a number of ways. Scores that a department achieves in the REF is just one of these – bad scores might affect how much funding central management might allocate to that department in the future. With the power to make staff redundant there is the danger that it might be used by departments to fire academics whose research has not scored well in the REF therefore further discouraging academics to disagree with the mainstream ideas in their field.
The proposals to reform Statute 18 completely undermine the notion of plurality in the UCL academic community and serve to damage UCL’s reputation as a globally excellent research institution. Where similar changes have been made at Queen Mary University London over 20 academics are facing compulsory redundancy as a result of perceived underperformance in the REF.
What is UCLU saying about this?
UCLU representatives have been attending both UCL and trade union meetings around this issue and raising our concerns. A debate around the issue took place at Academic Board on the 23rd May. This was only official opportunity for staff and students to voice their concerns and objections to the proposed changes so far. We’re pushing for a more extensive and thorough consultation process with meaningful student involvement and have demanded a further meeting which will take place on the 10th July at 4.15 pm in the Darwin Lecture Theatre.
Statute 18 will be debated at Union Council on the evening of Tuesday 29th May at 6pm in the Conference Room of the CSC (2nd Floor). All Council meetings are open to all UCL students to attend and join the debate. You can read the motion that will be debated here.
If you want to find out more information about what UCLU are doing about Statute 18 or if you’d like to get involved with the campaign you can contact Luke Durigan – Education and Campaigns Officer at firstname.lastname@example.org.