A blow-by-blow account of cases

May 22, 1998

A bill to protect whistleblowers should soon be law, but few institutions are ready. Phil Baty reports

ST MARK AND ST JOHN

The College of St Mark and St John in Plymouth has sacked two long-serving lecturers who tried to raise concerns about quality through internal channels.

Last week Nigel Mace, senior media studies lecturer, joined David Harris, former social sciences reader, in being dismissed for "gross misconduct".

Both had worked at the college for 25 years. They were accused of "harassment and bullying" by a media studies head when they objected in meetings and memos to the reorganisation of a media studies degree course.

They say they were following up concerns raised about standards in a teaching quality assessment of the course, validated by Exeter University, which gave a low grade for curriculum design.

The college's management has backed claims that although there was no external whistleblowing, the lecturers were guilty of "gross misconduct" because of the way they pursued their objections internally, such as using "aggressive body language" in meetings.

Both lecturers are appealing against their dismissal and are being supported by the Association of University Teachers.

ANGLIA POLYTECHNIC UNIVERSITY

The staff of a whole department at Anglia Polytechnic University business school have been threatened by their vice-chancellor with gross misconduct charges and instant dismissal for "conspiring" with the press. Any evidence that staff have conspired "actively or by association" will be punished, they have been warned.

The threat by vice-chancellor Mike Malone-Lee, which recipients have condemned as "blanket bullying", has been delivered to staff in the troubled management development division of the business school after a series of articles in The THES and elsewhere about nepotism, bullying and mismanagement.

The vice-chancellor said: "The university respects the right of members of staff, as private individuals, to hold whatever views they wish. It is, however, not prepared to tolerate a situation in which the press is used as an instrument through which to conduct what can only be described as private vendettas against colleagues, and to bring the university into disrepute. Harassment and bringing the university into disrepute in this way constitutes gross misconduct.

"If there is any evidence of further misconduct of this nature, the university will take the most severe action against anyone it has reason to believe is conspiring, actively or by association, to damage the university as an institution or individuals employed by the university. Gross misconduct normally leads to dismissal without notice or payment in lieu of notice."

One education lawyer said: "This vice-chancellor is shooting from the hip. They appear to have got themselves into a tangle. It is fairly heavy-handed."

Staff at the division, led by its head John Watts, have raised complaints about the permanent appointment and performance of Jonathan Jenkins, a lecturer in the division, whose father, Hugh Jenkins, is dean of the business school. A report from the university's audit and compliance committee exonerated the Jenkinses, but staff question its findings.

As far as the university is concerned, it would appear that the matter is now closed. And as the vice-chancellor warned: "It is not acceptable for members of staff who do not like or agree with the outcome of (the university's process for dealing with complaints) to seek to pursue the matter further in ways that harass a member of staff and damage the good name of the university."

CRICKLADE COLLEGE

Three union activists are facing redundancy in the midst of a financial scandal at Cricklade College, Andover.

The college, whose principal is suspended pending the completion of an independent inquiry into the college's financial affairs, has been struggling to cope with a deficit of Pounds 1 million. In 1995, the college had a surplus of Pounds 700,000.

The Hampshire college's governance and management were deemed "less than satisfactory" in a 1997-98 Further Education Funding Council inspection, which noted "weak financial management". But the college has announced plans to scrap three posts in its business studies department. Of the six staff in the department, three are active members of lecturers' union Natfhe, among them Andrew Murray, branch secretary of the southern region, and a designate member of the national executive. Natfhe regional spokesman Dave Fysh said: "Public suspicion is bound to be aroused when the jobs of union activists are threatened in the middle of a scandal that they have helped bring to public attention."

Elizabeth Blakemore, acting principal, said: "The review of staffing is completely unrelated to the inquiry into college finances. The management does not intend to discuss the details of the review with the press, as it is the subject of trade union consultation. All staff in the business studies section are subject to the review, and they will be treated equally within the process. Being a trade union member or officer will neither be advantageous nor disadvantageous."

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