Blowing the whistle

May 1, 1998

You report that the Committee of University Chairmen has revised its guide for governors, including adding the requirement that "universities should have clear procedures for dealing with whistleblowers... (THES, April 10)". Even more recently the National Audit Office report on Glasgow Caledonian University has called for similar arrangements. However, in itself this is no safeguard if governors then deliberately ignore those procedures.

This was the case at the University of Portsmouth where, following earlier problems concerning irregular conduct by two members of the directorate, the university's audit committee called for an investigation procedure to be "permanently established, involving the internal auditors, to be activated if allegations arise of serious breaches of process, eg in relation to serious misuse of funds, non-compliance with the regulations ..."

This was produced by the head of finance and myself, approved by the audit committee in May 1993, reported to the board of governors in June 1993 and circulated to all staff in August 1993 with the title Investigation of Alleged Financial and Other Irregularities. It was specifically commended by the Higher Education Funding Council for England's audit service and the internal auditors (Ernst and Young) as an example of best practice.

Within the document, the following principles were set out: A member of staff, acting reasonably and not maliciously or vexatiously, has a duty to report any apparent breach of financial propriety and probity.

The university has a duty to protect and support, and ensure there is neither harassment nor victimisation of, those who in good faith draw attention to possible irregularities.

Given its role in overseeing the operation of the policy, the audit committee should at all times hold the trust and confidence of all members of the university.

Yet when the need, regrettably, arose to apply those procedures in relation to the expenses claims of the former vice-chancellor, the procedures were blatantly disregarded by the audit committee, the chairman and vice-chairman of the board of governors and subsequently the remaining members of the board. When the situation was, belatedly, notified to HEFCE, it appears officers of that organisation participated in the cover-up.

These failings were criticised in both the Lever and NAO reports. Yet nothing has been done to atone for the conduct of the university and its governors at that time. Until there is evidence that the University of Portsmouth is prepared to address thoroughly and fully the injustice it perpetrated, no one faced with similar "whistleblowing" responsibility can have any confidence that "a clear procedure" is sufficient protection if left in inappropriate hands for implementation.

John Pickering

Rowlands Castle, Hampshire

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