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Job security

Everyone has the right to job security, and this is vital for universities because social security is a universal human right, and sustained empirical evidence shows that job security is the bedrock of innovative, productive and cohesive workplaces. Nobody should ever be dismissed without oversight from representatives of staff and independent colleagues, and without being given reasonable notice, a fair reason, and a redundancy payment if they have worked for a substantial amount of time. The rights explained below include:

  • (1) your rights to protection against unjust dismissal,
  • (2) fixed term contracts and Graduate Teaching Assistant rights, and
  • (3) the need to restore accountable oversight led by staff of job security.

At university, the best practice is that an accountable Academic Board or Senate oversees job security policy, but at King's College, London we have seen a fall in standards. KCL UCU is taking action to restore our standards.


(1) Rights against unjust dismissal

Everyone has the right to job security, as part of the universal human right to social security. At work that particularly means protection against unjust dismissal. Your job should be secure, not subject to arbitrary managerial power. All procedures in your contract must be followed to the letter, on top of all common law and statutory rights to consultation, and collective voice. Under the bare minimum statutory standards in the Employment Rights Act 1996, everyone has the right to:

  • reasonable notice before any dismissal, at least of 1 week's notice after 1 month's work, 2 weeks after 2 years, 3 weeks after 3 years, and so on up 12 weeks for 12 years' work (section 86) but in most cases people have greater contractual rights, often to 3 months' notice,
  • the right to be dismissed only for a fair reason, based on conduct, capability, qualification or redundancy, according to standards of good workplace relations (section 98),
  • if the reason is redundancy (that the job at the university is no longer economically necessary) then there must be full consultation in good time, options for redeployment explored, and if there is no alternative a redundancy payment after 2 years' work (section 135 ff and common law: see the five principles in Williams v Compair Maxam Ltd [1982] IRLR 83),
  • all procedures in your contract must be followed, usually at least complying with the ACAS Code of Practice on Disciplinaries (2015) such as warnings, a fair and unbias hearing, and the right to appeal (Trade Union and Labour Relations (Consolidation) Act 1992 section 207A);
There is a core "duty of mutual respect" in all employment relations and "an implied contractual right to a fair process", which can be backed through an injunction as well as damages: respectively Wilson v Racher [1974] ICR 428, West London Mental Health NHS Trust v Chhabra [2013] UKSC 80, [37] and Edwards v Chesterfield Royal Hospital NHS Foundation Trust [2011] UKSC 58, [44]. A dismissal is always unlawful if there is:
  • evidence of bias or malicious motive by a manager,
  • any connection to discrimination in violation of the Equality Act 2010,
  • any connection to trade union membership or activities (TULRCA 1992 section 146),
  • any reason connected to bringing an employment rights claim,
  • conduct before a dismissal or in the manner of dismissal that violates mutual trust and confidence or the dignity of the employee.
Unfortunately, KCL UCU has seen - and has been forced to take action to halt - repeated attempts at discriminatory, bias, conflicted and maliciously motivated dismissals, coupled with conduct of managers and staff in HR that is utterly unacceptable and unlawful. This has nearly led to multiple Employment Tribunal cases. In the past, to avoid publicity for managers' wrongdoing, employees have even been forced into non-disclosure agreements. All these cases are wrong: KCL UCU will aim to seek the best resolution for those involved, but has also taken and will take public, concerted action against any individual manager, and against anyone carrying out employer functions, where this is necessary to protect the rights of our fellow colleagues, and the integrity of our university.


(2) Fixed term contracts and Graduate Teaching Assistants

While the standard employment relationship is, and should be, an indefinite contract on fair pay, King's College, London managers have overseen a drift towards proliferating fixed-term contracts. This particularly affects Graduate Teaching Assistants. A goal of management - produced by short-sighted, evidence-free thinking - has been to favour a workplace model with a "core" workforce of permanent professors, lecturers or research and education staff, and a "periphery" of tutors whose numbers fluctuate according to demand. This is supposed to be flexible and efficient, but the reality is that it has caused more harm than good. University operations are stable, predictable, and yet a growing number of people have been placed in a condition of permanent precarity using temporary contracts, and forced to reapply for their jobs every year. KCL UCU opposes fixed-term contracts on principle: their use as standard practice represent a failure of managerial creativity, and a failure to plan competently, and this resulted in a generation of academics enduring casualised, precarious employment, starving the sector of talent. It has degraded UK higher education.

Where staff are forced into fixed-term contracts, the law's minimum standards are that:

  • the expiry of a fixed-term contract is irrelevant for whether there is a fair reason for dismissal, and the duty to pay redundancy: an employer must always give a good reason for dismissal, and a redundancy payment if needed, after two years of work. The employer cannot just say "your contract has expired" because this is never a good reason. Under Employment Rights Act 1996 section 95(1)(b) the end of a fixed term is a dismissal, that must be justified;
  • there should be no less favourable treatment for staff on fixed-term contracts compared to permanent members of staff, including on pay, hours or dismissal protection, unless there is an objective justification that is proportionate: Fixed-term Employees (Prevention of Less Favourable Treatment) Regulations 2002 regulations 3-5
  • if an employee is given successive fixed-term contracts, as well as being protected by fair dismissal law after two years, they have a right after four years to be given a written statement that they have an indefinite contract, unless there is an objective justification for continuing to have fixed-term contracts: FTER 2002 regulations 8-9.

The reality is that the excessive paperwork, and repeated renewal of fixed term contracts for KCL staff is wasting everyone's time, and needlessly making this a worse place to work. In law, everyone already has the same statutory rights to fair dismissal protection as a permanent employee after two years, and so there is no reason why KCL should not at the very least confirm indefinite employment at this point. But more than this, the justifications of "cost" or "risk" for not hiring staff on a permanent basis, subject to normal probation requirements, lack any credible, evidential basis. This is why KCL UCU will do everything it can to ensure the default in academic life returns to indefinite, and secure employment. 

Finally, the payment system for Graduate Teaching Assistants is not yet clear: currently at KCL, GTAs' work is rated as being equivalent to grade 5, point 25, on the national salary spine scale, plus the London Weighting Allowance, with pay calculated as a fraction of a 35 hour week for the number of hours spent teaching, preparing and marking. However, many GTAs cannot yet see the connection between the hours they work and pay.


(3) Job security through accountability

The increasing insecurity of academic and university staff comes from the loss of accountability in how contracts are written and how people are hired or dismissed. The best practice is for an Academic Board or Senate, which is democratically elected by members of staff (not appointed by managers), to have powers of overseeing all hiring and dismissal practices. At King's College, London the tendency has been for HR and other managers to write increasingly oppressive, mean, arbitrary and self-defeating powers into people's contracts - including variation clauses, unilateral termination with pay in lieu of notice clauses, exclusions for proper procedure, and purported exemption of liability for wrongdoing. All of these practices have doubtful legality, and they are wrong on principle. They are hidden in the "small print", and so staff do not know the terms under which they are employed until something goes wrong, and find themselves at the mercy of arbitrary decision-makers who may be prone to abuse of power.

The abuse of power at King's College, London needs to end with an open, accountable and democratic structure of decision-making. Instead of following the worst tricks of cheap HR and management texts, there should be a restoration of accountable structures like those seen at the University of Oxford (Statute XII.B), University College London, or the University of California (Bylaw 40.3), where academics determine the proper system of job security for each other. The world's leading universities protect innovation and productivity by protecting job security, and do not leave it to chance.


Further reading

  • M Otsuka, 'Is there academic tenure in the UK?' (5 August 2019) Medium (explaining loss of job security at KCL compared to other universities)  
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