Higher Education: We need a whistle-blower's charter

The Nolan committee's recommendations on openness and accountability in academic institutions do not go far enough, argues Liz Allen
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The Independent Online
Universities are under increasing pressure to compete financially, to make money, and to do better than their neighbours. Inevitably, occasionally things go wrong and sometimes individuals - even representative groups such as boards of governors - seek to disguise the fact.

And yet these are not only private problems for private corporations. Higher education institutions receive millions of pounds of public money annually. They are responsible for the education of students and, perhaps more intangibly, for the integrity and credibility of academic research and scholarship.

There is a justifiable public interest in ensuring that malpractice can be identified and dealt with. Yet in the majority of higher education institutions, if a problem is in effect buried at institution level, the only recourse for concerned individuals and their trade unions is to "trouble make" as publicly as they can.

The National Association of Teachers in Further and Higher Education (Natfhe) experienced this all too recently at both Portsmouth and Huddersfield universities where it was only by a forced washing of dirty linen in public that serious difficulties were finally resolved. Yet lecturers and their organisations have no desire to pillory the institutions. What is needed is an orderly and dignified way of dealing with serious problems.

So my first reaction to the recommendations on further and higher education in the second Nolan committee report, was, by and large, enthusiastic. There were the general recommendations to ensure openness and accountability. There were the recommendations for codes of practice on whistle-blowing and for common standards to limit the use of commercial confidentiality, both moves that Natfhe, with other organisations, has argued for.

And there was the proposal that the higher education funding councils, institutions and representative bodies should consult on a system for an independent review of disputes. Natfhe has been a lone voice in calling for some machinery to which really intractable and serious problems of malpractice within individual universities and colleges could be referred.

The old universities have the Visitor system,where an outsider can look at disputes, though as the Nolan report notes, the process of appointing Visitors may be lengthy and the law governing their activities is complex. They have, for example, no power to deal with employment matters. Natfhe has not argued for an extension of the visitor system to the new universities and colleges. Instead we have asked for the higher education system as a whole to take responsibility for the question of malpractice - in the same way as it takes responsibility for quality and standards and so on. We advocated the establishment of a last resort machinery that would have a common frame of reference across the system, which would be respected and understood, and would equally be available to the old universities as to the new.

To date we have been listened to politely on this subject by the representative bodies themselves, but we have drawn a blank. So it is particularly heartening to see amongst a range of welcome Nolan recommendations the one for "a system of independent review of disputes" - precisely what we have argued for.

So why do I describe my reaction as being "by and large" enthusiastic, and why, on reflection, does that enthusiasm become tinged with some pessimism? After all, I believe that many of the Nolan recommendations will, "by and large", be adopted in higher, and further, education.

Yet there is a real tension in institutions across the sector between accountability to a system-wide framework of standards, quality, teaching, curricula and governance, and the principle of institutional autonomy.

In many cases this tension is creative and healthy, but sometimes it becomes distorted, and the claims of institutional autonomy lead on to secrecy and defensiveness. And I am not entirely optimistic that, left as it is to voluntary action, Lord Nolan's recommendations for dealing with institutional disputes on a systematic, sector-owned basis, will be taken up. For that is the central worry about the recommendations in this report. There is no compulsion, no legal force behind them.

This may not be a problem where many of the recommendations are concerned. There is already, I believe, a shift of culture in the new universities, towards a greater recognition of the importance of openness and accountability.

Most institutions conduct themselves properly and deal promptly and effectively with various kinds of misbehaviour. It is in the rare cases where this breaks down that we need recourse to another place. The "system" has been invited to recognise this and to address the problem. The fear is that with nothing to drive those concerned, this issue will prove too controversial and unpopular.

The majority of institutions will continue to function properly and democratically and the representative bodies will decline to take ownership of the occasional but serious problem. Those who are determined to challenge and expose malpractice may yet be grateful for any action taken on the setting up of whistle-blowers' charters.

The writer is head of higher education at the National Association of Teachers in Further and Higher Education.