Fear is the key to naming and shaming

Honesty has not proved to be the best policy for whistle-blowers in higher education. But is all that set to change?
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Indy Lifestyle Online
LAST WEEK the Public Interest Disclosure Bill passed through its committee stage in the House of Lords. When it receives the Queen's signature it will protect staff from being dismissed or penalised for exposing malpractice in the workplace. That comes too late for some who blew the whistle on wrongdoing (for example, Bonnie Hall at Portsmouth University, see box, right). But, combined with other pending legislation on freedom of information, it should help to shift institutions away from a culture of cover-up towards more openness and honesty.

"Those institutions in higher education which have not got absolutely clear ethical guidance and absolutely clear systems for appeal are highly at risk when this Bill receives royal assent and comes into operation," says Chris Price, editor of the new magazine Stakeholder and former Labour MP and vice-chancellor of Leeds Metropolitan University. "Traditionally in Europe universities have never had to put a high priority on the ethical behaviour of their academic staff. The new Bill should change that in a wonderful way."

Guy Dehn, of the charity Public Concern at Work, which provides legal advice to people who want to expose wrongdoing without getting the sack, is calling on universities and colleges to institute sensible whistle- blowing procedures, as recommended by Lord Nolan in his report on standards in public life. "People who are fiddling public money should stop fiddling public money," he says. "If they don't have good whistle-blowing procedures, it is more likely that an employee will go outside, say, to the media. So, the incentive is fear - if they have the wrong culture, they will read about it in the press."

But it is not only the new whistle-blower legislation that universities will have to take note of. The Data Protection Act, which gives people the right of access to computer files on themselves, is being extended to cover manual records, indeed any system of records. Postgraduate students who want to know how they're doing, for example, will be able to see all the papers kept by the university on them. They will have legal grounds for complaint if they find those files contain inaccurate, irrelevant or out-of-date information.

Finally, a Freedom of Information Bill is expected this summer, implementing last year's White Paper, which will bring universities into line with many other publicly-funded bodies: central and local government, quangos and the National Health Service. When it becomes law - probably next year - people will have a right to ask for information and to see it (among the exceptions will be information that is commercially sensitive). "Universities won't be able to afford to be complacent," says Maurice Frankel, director of the Campaign for Freedom of Information, who will be speaking later this month at a conference on the subject sponsored by The Independent.

"A whole range of different groups of people with an interest in what goes on in higher education are going to have new rights to information, which universities are going to be forced to respond to."

The signs are, however, that universities are being slow to take action. In his highly critical report on Glasgow Caledonian University earlier this year the Comptroller and Auditor General said that few Scottish institutions had proper arrangements for whistle-blowing. A well-defined procedure enabling staff to raise their concerns in a responsible way, and to have them examined objectively, would have helped to deter misconduct within Glasgow Caledonian, he said. "The authors of the anonymous allegations which led to the investigation in this case stated that because of a climate of fear and intimidation this was almost the only way to make their concerns known."

Investigations into that university uncovered evidence of serious wrongdoing, irregularities and control weaknesses. The principal, Stan Mason, was fired for gross misconduct last year after being found to have improperly accepted more or less exclusive use of a Saab and a chauffeur-driven Jaguar. He and other senior staff and their spouses had made two visits to the Far East followed by "debriefing" sessions at holiday resorts - all largely at public expense. Professor Mason is suing the university for unfair dismissal and his case is being heard in an industrial tribunal at the moment.

Before Glasgow Caledonian there were other famous cases of malpractice in academe which required the National Audit Office to be called in. One was at the University of Huddersfield and concerned the size of the proposed severance package for its vice-chancellor; a second was Portsmouth University (see box); a third was at Swansea Institute of Higher Education, where poor control was exercised over the distribution of examination certificates in Malaysia; and another concerned Southampton Institute, criticised for the way it was running overseas partnerships.

In the current higher education climate, in which institutions are starved of funds unless they can attract students and where the marketplace has become increasingly competitive, great emphasis is laid on good marketing and public relations. People who step out of line - whistle-blowers and those who want to tell the truth - are stamped on hard. At the height of the troubles at Southampton Institute, disgruntled staff produced a satirical version of the internal newsletter. The Institute director at the time responded by hiring a private detective to track down the authors.

More recently there has been another case of a member of university staff falling foul of university bosses for doing a job of informing rather than putting a good spin on stories.

Jim Dumsday, editor of Hull University's bulletin, reported concern about Indonesian students on an MA in security studies, and is now facing disciplinary action.

Such censorship sits uneasily with the universities' role of research, scholarship and teaching, says Tony Bradney, senior lecturer in law at Leicester University, who will also be speaking at the conference organised by the Society for Research into Higher Education.

"Higher education should be very strongly committed to freedom of information," he argues.

But it is not. And the reason is that the trend is to create the conditions for dumbing down of standards, not to mention nepotism and financial mismanagement at the top, says Colwyn Williamson, of the Council for Academic Freedom and Academic Standards, a lecturer in philosophy at Swansea University who blew the whistle on standards in Wales. He was reinstated in 1993 after five official inquiries, culminating in one by the Queen. "University newsletters have gradually become more propaganda, image-building instruments, designed to raise morale in terms of the latest recruitment drive or the latest course on offer to attract new clients," he says. "That process inevitably creates intolerance."

The conference, "Freedom of Information in Higher Education" is on June 22 at 1-7 Great George Street, London SW1. For further information, contact the Society for Research into Higher Education (0171-637 2766; fax: 0171- 637 2781). Speakers include Professor Clive Booth, former vice-chancellor of Oxford Brookes University, now senior adviser to the British Council; Colwyn Williamson, case co-ordinator, Campaign for Academic Freedom and Academic Standards; Maurice Frankel, director of the Campaign for Freedom of Information; and Jim Gardner, vice-president elect (education), NUS.

Ousted for her honesty and still out of work

BONNIE TALL was forced out as secretary to Neil Merritt, vice- chancellor of Portsmouth University, after she had blown the whistle on his expenses fiddling. After winning her case for unfair dismissal, Mrs Tall, the wife of a retired naval officer, was awarded pounds 10,000. She has been out of work ever since. When she resigned she lost her pension rights. Her boss left with a golden handshake, while the university spent pounds 200,000 on an inquiry.

"I realised my boss was making inappropriate travel claims. He was buying expensive air tickets and trading them down to bucket-shop tickets, pocketing the difference. He did it twice, to my knowledge. I was concerned about this because I was filling in the claim forms. There was a manual which told you what you had to do if you suspected financial irregularity. I followed it to the letter and reported the matter to the finance officer who, in turn, reported it to officials higher up. But nothing happened. Then it blew up again because the local paper cottoned on that something funny was going on at the university. They published a story, saying there was a problem with expenses. One of the pro vice-chancellors, Malcolm McVicar, whom I had told about the expenses fiddling, came to my office and said we had to get rid of Neil Merritt. Armed with all the papers, he got into his car and charged up to London and confronted Merritt with the evidence. The result was that the vice-chancellor agreed to resign. I was told he was going and that he knew I was the whistle-blower. But then things went awry. Malcolm McVicar appeared at my door to say that the chairman of governors had threatened him with the sack if he didn't support the vice-chancellor. He decided to save his skin. I decided I would have to resign and go to the press. So I rang the local newspaper and gave them the story. It was hard to do. I adored my job. But I was put in an impossible position. It doesn't matter how many regulations or laws you've got. If governors who run the place want to cover it up, what do you do? The only thing that governors have got is their judgement.

After that everyone closed ranks. They said I was exaggerating things for my own personal benefit. God knows what they meant by that. It wasn't until some months later - after the governors decided to institute an inquiry by Jeremy Lever QC - that Merritt resigned. The staff had already passed a motion of no confidence in him. He left with a pounds 55,000 pay-off. Jeremy Lever's report was utterly damning. Then the National Audit Office looked at the matter in a report that was critical of the vice-chancellor and some of the governors. Mike Hancock, my local MP, has been trying to get the university to apologise to me. But they're refusing to accept that they were in the wrong."