GLASGOW University has been accused of treating staff “like robots” and creating a workplace “like something from a science fiction novel” after it emerged that the Russell Group university paid almost £40,000 for a fingerprint identifying system to track cleaning staff.

Glasgow University spent £39,225 installing 11 biometric kiosks at its Gilmorehill and Garscube campuses in 2011 to keep tabs on university cleaners, an investigation by online site the Ferret has revealed. “The system was piloted with a small number of cleaning staff, but due to hardware issues never went fully live,” the university said in response to a Freedom of Information request.

Biometrics works by analysing unique physical characteristics such as fingerprints and other data. Trade unions yesterday criticised Glasgow University for putting incremental gains in time management above staff morale. “Only ignorant employers still believe that discretionary work effort can be maximised by treating people like robots. Surely it is reasonable to expect Glasgow University of all places to be more enlightened about work in the 21st century?” said Stephen Boyd, assistant secretary at the Scottish Trades Union Congress. “This system epitomises the kind of intrusive, command and control management practices that really should be consigned to the last century. Any incremental gains in time management will be heavily outweighed by he effects of plummeting morale.”

Scottish Liberal Democrat justice spokeswoman Alison McInnes said finger printing cleaning staff belonged in science fiction rather than a modern Scottish workplace.

“These reports raise real questions over the way that Glasgow University thinks is appropriate to treat staff. Biometric scanners sound more like something from a science fiction novel than a workplace in Scotland today. It is also unclear how the information that they collect will be used and what safeguards would have been in place to protect people’s private data,” she said. “The fact that this scheme never went fully live is welcome but there are questions over why this approach was even considered in the first place.”

Civil liberties campaigners said that installing fingerprint recognition dehumanised staff and also raised concerns about data security.

“It is easy to decide to monitor employees. Often it is seen as a replacement for proper management. However, the message it sends can be one of distrust and it risks dehumanising relationships. There are often much better ways to improve workplace performance,” said Jim Killock, executive director the Open Rights Group.

“Biometrics are a particularly intrusive kind of authentication which ought to be used sparingly. Fingerprints cannot be changed, should data be compromised. Staff should be given information about how these systems are managing such risks.”

The fingerprint identifier system was installed by Time Data Security (TDS) Ltd, a Dublin-based company that has also worked with Glasgow Caledonian University, describe themselves as “leading specialists in the areas of integrated Security Systems and Smart Card deployments.”

In 2011, seven biometric kiosks were installed at Glasgow University’s Gilmorehill campus and a further four at the Garscube campus. The system was piloted with cleaning staff but never fully installed.

Around the same time, the university announced swingeing cutbacks to academic courses, including scrapping the Centre for Drug Misuse Research and withdrawing social work courses. A spokesman for the University of Glasgow said: “Any decision to implement a system of this kind would take place only after full consultation with colleagues involved.”

This story was produced in partnership with The Ferret.