UCU major concerns on changes to Imperial College Statutes

Synopsis

Imperial College has pushed through amendments to the College Statutes, allowing College to more readily make changes to staff academic freedoms. The act itself, and the manner in which it has been done, are matters that should be of great concern to all staff and students in the College. To enable the changes College issued misleading documentation to Privy Council – a state department formed of a formal body of advisors to King Charles III.   

 

Background

In September 2023, Imperial College HR contacted the Joint Trade Unions (JTU) to inform them that the College intended to amend its Royal Charter and accompanying Statutes as part of a move to modernise the College’s governance arrangements. In particular, they advised that they were planning on transferring an appendix covering important matters related to academic freedom and staff protections from the College Statutes to the College Ordinances. College stated that this was proposed for “style purposes” and was “very much seen as an administrative change”.

 

Concerns

On seeing the proposed changes, the UCU raised some immediate and serious concerns about the proposed change. While the Statutes are well protected and difficult to change – to make any modifications to them the institution must make an application, and be granted approval, by Privy Council – the Ordinances are comparatively simple to change, and can be signed off by the College’s internal governing body without external approval. This, in itself, raises suspicions, as it seems implausible that an institution would apply to Privy Council for a mere stylistic change. However, it was the targeted content of the appendices that is the real cause for concern as they cover key protections on academic freedom. In particular, section 2.1a of the then Statutes stated:

“…that the University applies academic freedom as broadly defined in Sections VI and VII of Recommendation concerning the Status of Higher Education Teaching Personnel adopted by the General Conference of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) in Paris on 11 November 1997.”

This is hugely important. The Unesco document (UNESCO_recommendation) includes, for example (item 28),

“Higher-education teaching personnel have the right to teach without any interference, subject to accepted professional principles including professional responsibility and intellectual rigour with regard to standards and methods of teaching.”

and also states that academics have the right to participate in the governance of the university.

These are major protections to academic freedom within Imperial College, and were rightly enshrined within the Statutes. To shift them to the Ordinances would permit the College to adjust or remove these academic freedoms with relative ease.

 

Objections raised by UCU, a lack of consultation, and evasive management responses 

Following the initial email, UCU raised their concerns with College management by email, and then by including an agenda item to the November Joint Committee (a thrice yearly formal meeting between UCU and College management), with dialogues between UCU and College management on the matter both by email and at the meeting.

It became clear that there had been no consultation with College stakeholders on the matter. There was certainly no mention of the proposed changes raised with the staff in College, and even the College consuls had not been informed of the proposal. It seems that the JTU were only informed in order to tick a box on the application to Privy Council.

During the October and November exchanges, College management downplayed, and chose to not acknowledge, UCU concerns, failing to provide a response to the objections we raised. They maintained that the proposed changes were somehow merely cosmetic, suggesting this would bring the College in line with other HE institutions, and claimed that they were following a recommendation of the Halpin report. In fact. the Halpin report makes no such recommendation but focusses narrowly upon the effectiveness of the Council in the wake of the bullying scandal.

Nevertheless, it was formally agreed by College management, at the 2nd November 2023 Joint Committee, to arrange a dedicated meeting to discuss with the JTU and College Consuls to discuss the proposed changes and discuss membership concerns. This would have been the start of a broader consultation on the matter.

 

College reneged on the promise to UCU and pushed the changes through

To UCU’s dismay, while waiting for an invitation to the promised meeting, College management informed the JTU on 20/12/23 that the College had received permission from the Privy Council to implement this constitutional change from 13/12/23. This was extraordinary and troubling news – not only had College management defaulted on a written agreement with one of its affiliated trade unions, but they had also managed to get the paperwork through Privy Council, which is something potentially difficult to reverse.

 

College misled Privy Council in order to get the changes approved

In January 2024 the JTU were finally provided with the paperwork the College sent to Privy Council. It included a document entitled “Summary of conversations with UCU” which had not been shared with the UCU in advance and provided a misleading, truncated, and inaccurate overview of the dialogue. Furthermore, in the formal application document, there is this extract (our emphasis added):

“The provisions relating to the discipline, grievances and dismissal of academic staff are proposed to be relocated into the Ordinances. Consultation is ongoing with staff representatives and the trade unions in this regard and no opposition has been indicated.”

The documentation was sent to Privy Council on 17/11/23, just over 2 weeks after the formal meeting where the objections were raised, and sent without UCU knowledge.

College describe this as a “technical” issue and are maintaining this line, but it is clear they have wilfully misled Privy Council in order push the changes through.

 

Further exchanges

UCU continues to oppose this weakening of protection of academic freedom. We have written to the Provost, President and head of HR outlining our concerns on many occasions (one example message is here – Statutes_letter_to_HR_March2024), and have had a further formal meeting at Joint Committee with the subject as an agenda item in February 2024. College management continue to assert that there is nothing to worry about, stating that staff are protected by laws on academic freedom anyway (missing the point – the institution should have its own robust internal protections meaning staff require no outside legal recourse), and that we should be assured that the trade unions will be consulted should they consider making changes to the parts on academic freedom that have been moved to the Ordinances.

We formally asked the College to approach Privy Council to reverse the changes, and to begin a proper staff consultation on the proposal, however they have declined.

We will continue to press for further broader discussion and consultation on this alarming development.