Stand up and be banished

September 8, 2006

Phil Baty meets a whistleblower who, after 150 job rejections, is starting to believe that he has been sent into the academic wilderness

Harinda Bahra has been rejected for more than 150 jobs in higher education since he left his £54,000-a-year post as a university marketing director in 2003.

From senior managers' posts to simple lectureships, he has been told that he is too highly qualified, not qualified enough or, more often than not, he has been told nothing at all.

Bahra is immaculately groomed and mild-mannered, and there are no outward signs to hint at why he has become unemployable in higher education. His impressive string of qualifications (including three masters degrees) deepens the mystery. There are no skeletons in his closet, he insists.

For Bahra, there can be only one reason for his enforced exile - he has never been afraid to speak out when he has witnessed practices or attitudes that have concerned him. "There are networks, and word quickly gets out if you are a 'troublemaker' and the sector closes ranks. No one wants to employ someone who might cause them trouble - even if all they have done is fulfilled their professional obligations," he says.

Roger Kline, head of equality and employment rights at the University and College Union, has pledged to make tackling the problem a key issue for the union.

Kline says: "Academic freedom will flourish, and the best people will be recruited, only in an environment where authority can be challenged and questionable management practices doubted.

"A pattern too often exists that starts with someone asking awkward, though often innocent, questions about breaches of the universities' own published rules or ethics and ends with them being cast into outer darkness.

"The sector must learn to accept that challenges by staff can be healthy stimuli and that those who meekly duck every difficult issue will not make the best academics or leaders of the future."

After 14 years of unblemished work, including stints as a senior lecturer and an academic director, things started to go wrong for Bahra shortly after he joined Southampton Solent University (then the Southampton Institute) as an associate dean for external development in 2000.

In 2002, after raising concerns about the administration of the institute, including the management of a £550,000 grant awarded under the funding council's Higher Education Business in the Community award scheme, Bahra decided to take out a formal grievance case highlighting a range of personal problems that he felt cumulatively added up to a case of race discrimination.

A preliminary report for the university's governing body at the time, by governor Godfrey Brandt, found the university had at least a prima facie case to answer.

Brandt reported that "a number of incidents have added up to a feeling of racial victimisation by the complainant" and concluded that the institute "could indeed find (itself) open to censure on the grounds of institutional racism".

Roger Brown, Southampton Solent's vice-chancellor, stresses that the Brandt report is an internal and confidential document. He says that the governors' panel set up to hear the case "did not uphold any of Mr Bahra's grievances".

A month after filing his report, Brandt resigned from the board of governors, complaining to the clerk that he had been "amazed" by some of the attitudes he had encountered in investigating Bahra's case. He wrote that black staff must be treated "as equals and not as exotic tokens".

Brown declined to comment on Brandt's departure.

By this stage, Bahra had resigned from Southampton Solent and had lodged an employment tribunal complaint against the institution, which was later settled out of court.

He walked straight into the post of director of marketing at Brunel University in May 2003. But when his Brunel managers discovered that he had an outstanding race claim against Southampton Solent, they sacked him.

An employment tribunal later found that Brunel had victimised Bahra under race discrimination laws but also found that there had been "a degree of co-operation or collusion" between Brunel and Southampton Solent. It found that the very areas that Brunel had listed as Bahra's weaknesses had been highlighted as strengths in a reference provided by Southampton Solent, and that Southampton Solent subsequently tried to delete these areas of praise from the reference.

Southampton Solent insists it had "absolutely no involvement" in the Brunel tribunal, so all conclusions about Southampton Solent were made without any evidence or submissions from the university.

Brown says that the findings regarding Southampton Solent were "incorrect"

and that when Bahra's reference was agreed the institute was not aware of the Brunel case. He added: "There were no discussions between the institute and Brunel concerning Mr Bahra. The fact that the tribunal made a finding for the purpose of Mr Bahra's case does not make it true. It is not."

Despite his years in the wilderness, Bahra is one of the lucky ones. He has supported his young family through business consultancy work, and this spring Brunel made what is believed to be a six-figure payout prior to a final hearing to determine the extent of the damage to Bahra's career. But a string of other victims suggest that many are frozen out of higher education without any hope of compensation.

One of the most well-known casualties is John Pickering, who lost his job as deputy vice-chancellor at Portsmouth University in 1994 after he helped to draw attention to irregularities in the expenses of vice-chancellor Neil Merritt.

After several hundred rejected job applications, his fears that he had been "blacklisted" appeared to gain some credence when he received, in 2000, an apology from headhunting firm Saxton Bampfylde for being "dilatory, dismissive and inaccurate" when explaining the reasons for his many rejections.

One young scientist, who asked that he and the institution he works at remain anonymous, says that while he and his colleagues regularly see things that they believe amount to scientific misconduct, no one feels that it is worth drawing attention to this.

"There's an old boys' club," he says. "If you win and it turns out your complaint was justified, you will really lose as you'll be deemed a troublemaker, the reputation of your laboratory will collapse and no one will want to employ you."

It is often preferable, he says, to go straight to the media, as journalists protect sources' identities.

Guy Dehn, director of the charity Public Concern at Work, points out that for seven years employees who blow the whistle on wrongdoing at work have been granted some degree of protection under the Public Interest Disclosure Act.

Some believe, however, that the Act is too narrow in scope. Legal protection is afforded only to those who blow the whistle on certain types of wrongdoing to prescribed authorities (which can include external regulatory bodies, and the media if there is a belief that complaints will not be acted on properly internally). The Act also seems blind to the more subtle forces of informal grapevines and unspoken "blacklists" of troublemakers.

But Dehn says the Act is effective. An Appeal Court ruling this summer established that an embittered employer can be prosecuted if they are found to have helped to make it impossible for the whistleblower to secure future jobs.

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