August 04, 2006

Staff are silenced by fear of reprisals

Times Higher Education Supplement
Jessica Shepherd
Published: 04 August 2006

Poll shows lecturers are alarmed at growing threats to their academic freedom, reports Jessica Shepherd. Four in ten academics say their freedom to express controversial or unpopular opinions is under attack, according to a poll carried out by ICM for The Times Higher.

The survey exposes the extent to which university staff fear academic freedom is being eroded. Some 39 per cent of 502 respondents said their right to question received wisdom - enshrined in the Education Reform Act 1988 - was in jeopardy. Some 38 per cent of professors, 45 per cent of senior lecturers and 36 per cent of lecturers said that their academic freedom was under attack.

A separate Times Higher online poll also probed views on academic freedom. More than 40 per cent of 107 respondents said they felt pressure over what they could say about their work and institution. Almost a quarter admitted to self-censorship out of a fear of their institution, and a similar proportion self-censored lest their peers disapproved. One had been fired for falling foul of guidelines, two had been officially disciplined and nine unofficially reprimanded.

The Education Reform Act 1988 made it a legal right for academics to have the "freedom to question and test received wisdom and to put forward new ideas and controversial or unpopular opinions without placing themselves in jeopardy of losing their jobs or the privileges they may have". Many academics say managerial culture is eroding freedom.

Sally Hunt, joint general secretary of the University and College Union, said: "The Times Higher poll should act as a wake-up call. Universities must protect the rights of academics and the reputation of UK research.

"The number feeling threatened is unlikely to decrease unless universities stop their interventionist approach to research and stop overburdening academics with teaching hours and bureaucracy."

David Rhind, vice-chancellor of City University, added a clause on academic freedom to the university's charter in April.

He said: "There is not much point in having a university unless you have academic freedom. I would defend to my death the right to express an opinion that might offend a university or the Government, as long as there was strong evidence for it."

ICM interviewed 502 academics by telephone between June 6 and June 12.

From: Times Higher Education Supplement

August 02, 2006

Salford university seeks mediation

'Poor report leads Salford to shake up grievance policy, writes Phil Baty.

Salford University is pioneering a "mediation" service after an internal report found that staff have little faith in the fairness of grievance procedures and believe that their managers close ranks to protect each other from misconduct claims.

Under a new eight-point equality and diversity strategy launched this month, Salford said that it had begun a "specific initiative" to learn from past grievance cases so that the "negative side-effects" could be minimised.

Peter Barrett, pro vice-chancellor, told staff this week that part of the initiative was a new mediation facility, which is designed to help the university deal with issues earlier and less formally.

To begin with, the service will be for ethnic minority staff only, but it is hoped it will be broadened to cover all grievance cases.

The announcement of what is believed to be a unique initiative comes nine months after The Times Higher reported the results of a survey of almost 1,000 staff and students at Salford on equality issues.

The report, from consultants The Gus John Partnership, called on Salford to take "urgent steps" to ensure management consistency in dealing with cases of misconduct to restore trust among the university's ethnic minority staff.

It revealed a widely held view that there was a policy at executive level to "protect managers come what may" and that this was "impacting on staff morale and engendering distrust".

The report, which listed 26 areas for improvement against 12 areas of strength, found "general perceptions of a culture of bullying among managers and the lack of a positive approach to whistleblowing".

Disabled and ethnic minority staff reported a "keep your head down" approach. The report said that there was a suggestion the executive team had been "complicit" in acts of discrimination and in "protecting managers who have discriminated".

Bill Gulam, a member of the Black Staff Network and an equality activist for the University and College Union, said his group had requested the mediation service after dealing with "three or four" cases that had gone all the way to an employment tribunal.

"It is really an opportunity for a reflective pause to allow people to step back from the line drawn in the sand, during disputes that are often extremely sensitive," he said. "It is entirely voluntary and does not take away anyone's legal rights."

In his announcement to staff this week, Professor Barrett, who chairs Salford's equality committee, said that an impact assessment of recruitment and selection of staff would also be carried out to reveal good practice and address problems.

He added that areas of concern included the university's "very low" proportion of disabled staff. It also has a low proportion of female professors.


* Mediation is available initially to ethnic minority staff only
* The policy is designed to sit within existing grievance procedures and does not in any way prevent a member of staff taking out a grievance
* Staff who take out a grievance can, with the agreement of the other side, seek resolution through mediation at any time
* There will be two mediators: a trained member of the Black Staff Network and a trained Link Personnel Manager
* If successful, the scheme will be extended to cover other relevant areas of employment
* Special mediation training for the personnel specialists in each of the university's departments, the personnel link managers and a team of volunteers from the Black Staff Network starts in September.'

From: Times Higher Education, 28 July 2006