Letter from the Vice Chancellor May 2014
Over the last few months, we have laid out our plans for the future through the publication of the University Strategy. It is an ambitious programme building, as it does, on our many strengths as a leading research-intensive institution. By our centenary year as a university in 2026, we aim to be a vibrant, thriving, sustainable and global institution – significantly larger in terms of students, international reach and revenue.
In that context, it is important to ensure that our governance structures are fit-for-purpose. In particular, we need to ensure that our Charter, the University's constitution, will help us to realise this vision.
The Charter constitutes us as a legal entity. It governs our structure, our purpose and outlines some of our employment policies. It also gives us the power to award degrees. It can only be amended by the Privy Council, acting on behalf of The Monarch.
Yet, our Charter has been barely touched since it was drawn up when we became an independent university in 1926 – the year of the General Strike; when Britain had an empire; Stanley Baldwin was Prime Minister; and very few young people went into higher education.
I set up a Project Board last year to look at the Charter and report back to the University Executive Board and Council. It found:
- the Charter and underpinning Statutes and Ordinances, as drafted, are archaic, cumbersome, overly legalistic, complex and confusing for staff and students;
- some provisions are not compliant with modern employment law – including provisions allowing managers to give academic staff disciplinary warnings with no notice or time to prepare, and no rights of appeal against grievance decisions. This means the University is forced to find ways to work around its own constitution to meet its legal requirements;
- employment provisions are long and drawn out. Disciplinary, grievance and redundancy procedures can be unnecessarily long-winded and adversarial, leading to uncertainty and additional anxiety for colleagues; and
- all changes, however minor, have to be approved by the Privy Council – a time consuming process which has led to the Privy Council itself asking us to review our Charter and Statutes, to avoid repeated referrals. By not updating a governance model designed for the 1920s, the Project Board warned that we risked not modernising or keeping pace with our competitors in higher education (many of whom had already gone through a similar process).
The Project Board made a series of recommendations. These were designed to ensure, firstly, that the information about how the University operates is transparent and easy to understand; and secondly, that there was absolute clarity about the rights, expectations and responsibilities of our staff and students.
These recommendations included:
- setting out the objectives of the University clearly – its powers and the structure of our governing bodies, ensuring greater accountability at all levels;
- enshrining academic freedom in the Charter for the first time, rather than it being set out in one of the supporting Statutes. This would protect the right of all employees who were undertaking academic activity to question and test received wisdom and to put forward new ideas and controversial opinions without risking losing their jobs or privileges. This underlines our commitment to academic freedom as a core value of our institution;
- making explicit the University's commitment to fair and equal treatment of every employee and student, and not just academic staff. For the first time, the Charter will recognise that all employees, and not only academic staff, are members of the University;
- modernising existing Ordinances, including employment provisions. These new regulations will incorporate the Statutes to streamline the University's constitution and set out clearly all policies in three sections - Constitution & Governance, Staff and Students;
- making it less adversarial and more straightforward to resolve disciplinary or grievance issues; and
- bringing employment provisions up-to-date, so the University can meet its legal obligations fully and in good time. This will mean that all procedures initiated by the University, an employee or a student will be carried out without delay, reducing uncertainty for all involved.
The Project Board has already met informally with the University and College Union (UCU) and Reading University Students' Union (RUSU) to discuss the proposed changes. Now, the University is starting a careful, detailed consultation exercise with staff and students. This will include:
- a formal discussion with UCU, starting in May 2014, on proposed changes to employment provisions ("Statute XXXIII") relating to academic staff;
- further formal consultation with UCU and RUSU in autumn 2014;
- an all-staff and student consultation on the full draft Charter and Ordinances in autumn 2014;
- final consideration by the University's Council and Senate in late 2014 and early 2015; and
- final approval by the Privy Council acting with the authority of The Monarch.
This is a deliberately careful process as it is right and proper that staff have the opportunity to comment and respond so we get the new Charter absolutely right.
The University aims to adopt the new Charter and Ordinances on 1 August 2015. The full timetable is set out here. For more information, there is a detailed Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) section published here [Note: FAQs updated October 2014].
If you have any questions in the meantime, please contact Erin Murphy on firstname.lastname@example.org
SIR DAVID BELL KCB