That’s Not How Layoffs/Redundancies Work, Sussex


The University of Sussex is reportedly attempting to lay off a philosophy lecturer while at the same time advertising a new position to teach the very same courses he does.

mustache-twirling villain

[University of Sussex administration photo placeholder]

Sussex has declared James Furnerredundant“.  According to the the Sussex University and College Union (UCU), “Sussex’s Redundancy Procedure allows for a redundancy if ‘the University’s requirement/s for members of staff to carry out work of a particular kind’ is/are ‘expected to cease or diminish’.”  Yet at the same time, the university is advertising to fill a new position, and “the only activities described in the advert for the new post as ‘expected’ are the four UG modules that James convenes.”

Furner had been employed on a “poorly paid” and part-time basis, according to the UCU, while the new position is a full-time post, but the responsibilities of each position appear to be the same.

Sussex UCU Branch President, Jo Pawlik, says:

This decision flies in the face of the progress on anti-casualisation that we have been making with our employer at Sussex over the last year: it is as baffling as it is enraging. Refusing this current employee job security continues the pattern in the sector of treating academic staff as though they are expendable. It is irreconcilable with the University’s ambition to be an employer of choice.

The UCU notes that Furner’s current employment ends at the end of this month, and encourages those who object to the administration’s plans to contact Vice-Chancellor Sasha Roseneil ([email protected]) and HR Director Colin Shipp ([email protected]) to “ask them to halt this unprincipled and wrongful decision, which will set a terrible precedent for how Sussex University and the Department of Philosophy treat its staff.”

You can read more about the case here.

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Derek Bowman
6 months ago

Sadly this sort of behavior is par for the course for the treatment of non-tenure-line faculty in the U.S., the only difference being that they don’t have to declare ‘redundancy’ for the faculty they dispose of – they simply don’t renew the contract.

The more astonishing part is that the existing position is part-time and the new position is full-time, despite having apparently the same job duties.

David Wallace
6 months ago

I think this is murkier than it looks.

The relevant facts are: what actually is Dr. Furner’s job description? And what is the job description for this new role? (I can’t find the relevant job advert online – Sussex UCU doesn’t provide a link.) If both Dr. Furner’s role and the new role are pure undergraduate-teaching positions, I agree that the case for unfair dismissal looks very strong. But it’s odd, and pretty expensive, for a part-time teaching role to be replaced by a full-time permanent teaching role with the same courseload (and 4 UG modules per year looks pretty light if that’s the sum total of responsibilities). So I suspect that this is a permanent academic appointment more generally, with research and graduate supervision responsibilities, and undergraduate teaching as just one component. And while it’s possible that Dr. Furner’s current job description includes research and/or graduate supervision (in which case again he’d have a strong unfair-dismissal case) I think it’s fairly unlikely. (Apparently he’s in fact doing research, but the question is whether he’s doing it as part of his job.)

If that’s right, I think Sussex has a fairly defensible redundancy case (though I’m no lawyer and redundancy law is horribly complicated). They’re restructuring the workforce, which can be a legit reason for redundancy. They aren’t obliged to offer the new job to Dr. Furner if it has a large graduate supervision/research component and that’s not part of his current job (of course he can apply for the new job). And given the new job, Dr. Furner’s role would then be redundant. 

(Justin: you say ‘the responsibilities of each position appear to be the same’. Does that mean you’ve found a copy of the further particulars for the new job? If so, could you share a link?)

Derek Bowman
Reply to  David Wallace
6 months ago

This is the relevant claim from the linked article, though it’s possible their reporting is inaccurate:

“The only activities described in the advert for the new post as ‘expected’ are the four UG modules that James convenes.”

David Wallace
Reply to  Derek Bowman
6 months ago

Yes, I saw, but the claim isn’t sourced and doesn’t seem to make sense. A permanent teaching-only post with something like a 2:2 load, to replace a part-time position, at a substantial increase in the University’s costs and in flagrant breach of employment law? I mean, anything’s possible, but I think it’s more likely that the article is making a mistake (and note that it’s not a journalistic article, it’s a press statement by the local Union branch). The article itself notes that Sussex told Dr. Furner that the course teaching was a ‘secondary aspect’ of the role, which implies other aspects.

David Wallace
6 months ago

OK: I’ve managed to find the job advert. It’s not on Sussex’s website any more (I assume because the job has been filled: the closing date for applications was July 28 and the start date is September 1) but the petition started by Sussex UCU has a saved copy (advert only, no further particulars). The full text is:

The Philosophy Department at the University of Sussex invites applications for a permanent (1.0 FTE) post. The area of expertise is open; however, the post-holder will be expected to teach on the following UG modules [the same four that Dr. Furner teaches]. There will also be some teaching for the MA in Philosophy and the MA in Social and Political Thought. Candidates with a background in Kantian philosophy (broadly construed) would be especially welcome since we will occasionally require cover for teaching in Phenomenology, Existentialism, and Modern European Philosophy.

I can’t find the further particulars, but from the way it’s described, and the salary range, it’s clear I was right: this is a full academic position, with research, grad supervision, grad teaching, and service components. Sussex UCU gives a pretty misleading account (maybe unintentionally, I don’t know) when they imply that it’s essentially the same job that Dr. Furner now has: they say that “t]he only activities described in the advert for the new post as ‘expected’ are the four UG modules that James convenes”, but I will take a bet that the further particulars will also require academic research, graduate supervision, etc, and that these aren’t part of Dr. Furner’s current job description. There is no way that Sussex would be obliged to appoint him to it; indeed, probably legally they couldn’t do so, given equal-opportunity law. (He would clearly be a qualified candidate; I assume he applied but didn’t get it.)

It looks to me as if: Sussex had a temporary teaching gap due to an academic vacancy; they made a part-time teaching-only appointment (of one of their recent PhD students) to cover it; now they’ve had a line released and so they don’t need the part-time appointment any more. A few years ago they’d just not have renewed, but UK employment law has tightened up since then and they have to formally make him redundant. You can debate whether that kind of approach is ethical, or how constrained it is by the details of UK redundancy law, but it’s pretty routine, and pretty different from the way this was originally described. (And I notice that the UCU is fighting this as a public-relations issue, and not just going to an industrial tribunal.)

Julian Friedland
Reply to  David Wallace
6 months ago

Ok thanks David. Plus I assume the now redundant instructor would be free to apply to this new position…

David Wallace
Reply to  Julian Friedland
6 months ago

I imagine he already did: it’s not obvious from the UCU account, but the job advert closed in July and the start date is ten days from now, so I assume the process has concluded.

Circe
Circe
Reply to  David Wallace
6 months ago

For those of us familiar with how UK hiring and fixed-term posts work, it was pretty obvious that this would turn out to be the case… Someone is coming to the of their contract. The department is now looking to make a permanent hire, which *will* involve extra responsibilities (PhD supervision at the very least). The current employee was hired to teach some modules for a couple of years. The new appointee will be a core member of the department for the foreseeable, contributing in full measure to department life, worts and all. These are potentially very different roles, calling for potentially very different attributes and skills.

David Hyder
David Hyder
Reply to  David Wallace
5 months ago

Sounds right to me.

Pascal Brixel
Pascal Brixel
6 months ago

Regarding the concerns raised by David Wallace and others, I think this recent update from Sussex UCU explains clearly and convincingly why there is no defensible redundancy case:
 
https://www.ucusussex.org.uk/post/sussex-ucu-condemns-supposed-justification-for-james-furner-s-redundancy

David Wallace
Reply to  Pascal Brixel
6 months ago

I don’t find it clear or convincing, because it turns on how to interpret some terminology in Sussex’s redundancy policy, and that terminology is clearly mirroring some standard legal terminology, and I don’t know what the UK case law is on how that terminology is to be interpreted in academic contexts. For instance, the policy says that redundancy applies when the university requires less of a certain sort of work. How is ‘work’ articulated? Is the work done by a faculty member treatable as a single activity (in which case, as Circe says, it’s very different work from Dr. Furner’s), or does it get articulated more finely, so that the teaching and research parts of one’s job are different sorts of work? I don’t know: it’s a matter of legal interpretation, not of a plain reading of the text.

I am fairly skeptical of the way Sussex UCU is interpreting the policy (and, indirectly, the law) since it would seem to rule out pretty routine activities. Consider maternity cover, say: if a faculty member takes a year of maternity leave (pretty common in the UK), and her department makes a 1-year teaching appointment to cover her undergraduate teaching, and then they make the appointee redundant at the end of the year when she comes back… well, that would seem to violate the redundancy policy, on Sussex UCU’s reading.

But: I’m not an expert on UK redundancy law. If Sussex UCU thinks there’s “no defensible redundancy case”, they ought to be able to bring a clear-cut unfair-dismissal case, and I’m confused as to why they aren’t just doing that rather than orchestrating a public-relations campaign.

I maintain that the actual situation seems quite different from the original description that we were given.

Pascal Brixel
Pascal Brixel
6 months ago

I’d add, more generally: universities do routinely treat contingent faculty as disposable tools, but let’s do what we can to resist that practice.

David Wallace
Reply to  Pascal Brixel
6 months ago

Putting UK redundancy law aside entirely, I’m genuinely interested in how you think universities should handle short-term gaps in their teaching coverage. (They are inevitably going to come up: failed searches, sudden deaths or departures, funding crises that mean line release gets delayed, deferred starts…) Should any such situation be handled by hiring a permanent teaching-only faculty member, no matter how short-term it is, or how late in the academic year it comes up? Or should universities accept that some courses just won’t be taught for a year or two, even if they’re pedagogically important, even if there are recent grad students who have a year’s shortfall in their own funding because the job market went badly, and would love to do the job?

David Wallace
6 months ago

(Re-posting a comment I made at Leiter Reports)

For my sins, I spent a bit of time looking into UK law as regards fixed-term contracts. (IANAL, etc.) Under UK law, you need an objective justification not to renew a fixed-term contract. That could be redundancy (you had a delineated task you needed done; it’s finished) or it could be “some other substantial reason”, of which the poster-child case (in academia) is that you were hired to cover sabbatical leave, secondment, or maternity.
I can’t find any relevant case law, and welcome comment from those more informed (Mike?), but I would expect that covering a temporary teaching gap caused by an empty faculty position that you haven’t yet been able to renew would come under that latter category, especially if it’s a short-term issue (if you sequentially employ someone as teaching cover for 15 years, different story). At the least, it’s not obvious that it does not come under that category.

If it does, it might be that Sussex’s HR department messed up by telling Dr. Furner that his contract wasn’t being renewed for reasons of redundancy, but that’s a pretty pyrrhic victory, because they have a perfectly good ‘other substantial reason’ not to renew it: it was a fixed-term appointment caused by a temporary gap in permanent staff. Ironically, it was in Dr. Furner’s financial interest for them to describe it as redundancy, because he would receive redundancy pay.

I find it fairly odd that Sussex UCU have taken what seems to be an absolutely routine occurrence in UK academia (fixed-term appointment to cover a gap in faculty coverage, terminated when a faculty appointment is made) and turned it into a major supposed scandal. Maybe they think standard practice here is immoral and illegal (though if so, I’m not at all clear what they think should be done about short-term teaching gaps), and they have a chance to win a landmark legal victory establishing it? But that’s not at all how they are describing it.

Steven French
Steven French
6 months ago

Just to chip in: like many HE institutions in the U.K., the University of Sussex has a Redeployment Procedure which I would expect to apply in this case. This states that,
‘ Every reasonable effort should be made within the relevant School or Division to find a suitable alternative position for the member of staff, unless there are objective reasons why redeployment within the School or Division is not appropriate (e.g. where there are no vacancies or the member of staff does not meet the essential criteria for a vacancy, or could not do so with a reasonable amount of training).’

The clause about not meeting the ‘essential criteria’ is obviously crucial and sadly my experience as a former UCU caseworker is that redeployment panels will sometimes interpret this in such a way as to reject a redeployment candidate who might seem, on the face of it, to clearly meet such criteria.

Also obviously I don’t know all the details of this case but even if Dr Furner was initially hired for sabbatical or maternity cover I would expect him to be a strong redeployment candidate for this new position (strong because he’s not only been doing the teaching but has a couple of books out one of which has been nominated for an award).

Also sadly, panels are often reluctant to explain their decisions or release their notes and even when they do, after the likes of me have jumped up and down a few times, said notes are more often than not lacking in relevant detail.

I also suspect Dr Furner and Sussex UCU have gone through all of this, including the appeals procedure and hence are now doing their own version of jumping and down, this time publicly.

Unfortunately there may be little chance of success at an employment tribunal, not just because such tribunals typically lean towards the employer in this country but also because of that ‘essential criteria’ clause. And the only times I’ve been successful as a caseworker in such situations is when some other factor can be identified, such as some form of discrimination (and even then, given that the relevant position was typically filled by the time we got to this stage, ‘success’ = finding an alternative position (only when the union member was in admin or professional services) or negotiating a decent ‘exit package’).

My overall impression is that these Redeployment Procedures, although initially hailed as a welcome move for supporting staff on temporary contracts, have become little more than bureaucratic fig leaves.

David Wallace
Reply to  Steven French
6 months ago

Steve: how does “meet the essential criteria” work here in a case where someone is research-active but (I am assuming) not as part of their job description?

From a department’s point of view (thinking of some cases I saw at BallioI, though not in Philosophy) I can see the undesirability of making a short-term hire purely on grounds of teaching aptitude and then moving that person into a research-heavy post without doing an open search. (Indeed, Oxford often got criticized for nepotism and inattention to diversity when it made moves like that, even when it was via an open search.)

Steven Frencfh
Steven Frencfh
Reply to  David Wallace
5 months ago

Thanks David.
Again, just to state the obvious, I think it really depends on the nature and quality of the research. If the candidate has a decent portfolio, eg with books published as seems to be the case here, then I would expect the union rep to argue that the latter aspect is satisfied. So then it comes down to the former & again I’ve had experience of Heads of Dept/whoever insisting that, “well, yes the research record is very good but it doesn’t quite fit with our overall research direction/goals/whatever …” To which my response, not surprisingly, was ‘So, were those aims handed down from the mountain carved in stone?!’

And of course, said direction may well be diverted & aims set to one side altogether in an open search for whatever reason.

I do take the point about diversity although I have to say, again, that many of the union members I defended in these sorts of situations were precisely the sort of folk who would enhance the diversity of the dept (it should come as no surprise that many of these short term hires who ‘failed to meet the redeployment criteria’ were women).

Finally, if the university is committed to ‘research led teaching’ as many are, then there really should be no ‘purely teaching’ short term hires.

But I do appreciate that is not always the case and that there may be genuine concerns about redeploying someone from such a ‘purely teaching’ position to one that is strongly research active. I’m just not sure thats the case here.

Steven French
Steven French
Reply to  Steven Frencfh
5 months ago

Ps just to add and respond to your actual question David – it shouldn’t matter whether or not research is part of the current or past job description since redeployment (at least a the Univ of Leeds) is supposed to be ‘skills based’. So as part of the procedure a skills survey is undertaken on paper and through interview prior to the colleague being put on the redeployment register and that goes beyond whatever they’re doing per the jd.

Also, here at least the bar is 70% – ie if they meet 70% of the criteria set down in the new jd, they should be redeployed. But as I said, management often finds way to ‘work around’ that!

Andrew Chitty
Andrew Chitty
5 months ago
Kris Rhodes
Kris Rhodes
5 months ago

This illustrates, possibly, the difficult but necessary growing pains involved in diminishing or ending the adjunctification of philosophy departments.