The stand-off between Central College of Commerce in Glasgow and Jim O'Donovan, its former employee, is set to continue into the new year with confirmation from the Scottish Further Education Funding Council that an independent review is to investigate the college's procedures in the case (as revealed in The TES Scotland on October 8, 2004).
The college dismissed Mr O'Donovan, who is the current national president of the Further Education Lecturers' Association, alleging he was guilty of gross misconduct following exchanges with a member of the college board of management which the college described as "intimidatory, threatening and confrontational". Mr O'Donovan was branch secretary of the union at the time.
Central's management denied he was fired because of his union activities.
But, following a hearing in 2003, an employment tribunal report last April was harshly critical of the management's behaviour, accusing it of exaggerating "utterly trivial" circumstances and making "mountains out of molehills (if there were ever molehills in the first place)".
The funding council has now accepted that the college's procedures had been subject to "significant authoritative criticism" by the tribunal which found that the college "had fallen seriously below the standard of a reasonable employer".
The independent review would therefore concentrate on the college's "grievance, disciplinary and other relevant policies and procedures" in the case, a circular issued by the funding council just before Christmas states. While the panel would consider the processes by which the college took its decisions, there would be no attempt "to substitute its judgments for judgments reasonably made by the college . . . (or) to review the judgment of the employment tribunal".
The panel's remit reflects the extreme wariness of colleges over this major step by the funding council. Some principals believe it is a serious encroachment on their autonomy, and could have significant implications for the future.
Mindful of these suspicions, the council went out of its way to stress that the review is the result of joint agreement between itself and the college's board of management - "recognising the autonomy of the college".
In a further attempt to demonstrate impartiality, the council has, unusually, employed an independent figure to draw up the three-person panel: Bill Speirs, general secretary of the STUC.
The result is a carefully chosen team of Michael Scanlan, a past president of the Law Society of Scotland; Professor John Gennard, head of the department of human resource management at Strathclyde University; and Liz Elkind, a former president of the STUC who is now an independent consultant. The panel will get down to work this month and its report will be published by the funding council, which hopes any lessons will be picked up by other colleges.
For its part, the College of Commerce has already declared confidently that it has no fears over the panel findings and that, indeed, the inquiry was its own idea. A spokesman told The TES Scotland last year: "We are confident in our procedures and are happy to have them looked at in this way in light of all the allegations."
Meanwhile at the resumed employment tribunal this week, Peter Duncan, principal of the College of Commerce, made clear his extreme reluctance to take Mr O'Donovan back because he did not trust him not to continue undermining the management.
Mr O'Donovan told the tribunal he would agree to abide by a code of conduct drawn up by the college and the EIS.