Brunel pays out to settle race row

June 16, 2006

A university manager who was unfairly dismissed has won an undisclosed sum out of court, writes Phil Baty

Brunel University has reached an out-of-court settlement with a former senior manager who claims he has been blacklisted by universities nationally after making complaints of race discrimination.

An employment tribunal ruled last year that Brunel had victimised Harinder Bahra under race discrimination laws when it summarily dismissed him from his £54,000-a-year post as marketing director in late 2003.

The tribunal found that Brunel had "become alarmed about their new recruit" after Mr Bahra revealed that he had outstanding race discrimination claims against his former employer, Southampton Solent University (then the Southampton Institute), which he later settled. Steven Schwartz, the former Brunel vice-chancellor, was criticised for "deeply unfair treatment" of Mr Bahra.

This week, on the day that Mr Bahra was due back in court to establish the size of his payout for the victimisation he had suffered, Brunel made an undisclosed out-of-court settlement that is understood to be well into six figures.

The tribunal was due to hear that Mr Bahra, despite a successful 14-year career in higher education, had failed to secure employment in the sector since his acrimonious departure from Brunel.

In his witness statement to the original successful tribunal hearing, dated May 2004, he said: "I have made over 60 job applications with over two thirds in the education sector. My ability to secure an appointment in the education sector is now severely limited... It is common practice within the sector to close ranks."

Roger Kline, head of equality for the University and College Union,JJwhich supported Mr Bahra's case,Jsaid: "The original decision that someone of Harinder Bahra's integrity and abilityJwas victimised after he lodged a claim of race discrimination should have set alarm bells ringing across higher education.

"Mr Bahra is precisely the type of highly talented and consummately professional academicJthat higher education needs. Those responsible for his treatment at Brunel University, Southampton Solent University and other institutions who have appeared to have excluded him from senior positions since should hang their heads in shame," Mr Kline said.

"I am delighted that he has finally managed to settle his case satisfactorily," he said, "but the UCU will be seeking discussions at the highest level to prevent other university staff being discriminated against in this way".

The original tribunal, in its judgment in May last year, made several observations about the "grapevine" and "networks" among senior university managers. It noted that Mr Bahra had been "anxious" that his former managers at Southampton (with whom he later settled his claims) should not know that he was working at Brunel, but "clearly it was inevitable that sooner or later the news would spread".

The tribunal found "evidence of some degree of co-operation or collusion between the university (Brunel) and Southampton (Solent)" over the preparation by Southampton of a reference for Mr Bahra.

Brunel defended its decision to dismiss Mr Bahra on the grounds that he had failed to "develop positive sets of relationships with professional and senior staff" and that he could not "meet deadlines" - but these very areas of his work had been explicitly praised in a reference that Southampton had prepared for him.

But the tribunal noted that "within a few weeks" of Brunel submitting its defence to the tribunal, Southampton had sought to delete these areas of praise from the reference.

"There was no explanation forthcoming from the respondent or anyone from the Southampton Institute as to the remarkable fact that within a few weeks of the grounds of resistance having been presented to the tribunal... that attempts were made on behalf of Southampton Institute to water down (its) original reference so as to delete mention of Mr Bahra's good interpersonal skills, his ability to work effectively with a wide range of colleagues and to deliver within deadlines.

"The tribunal did not accept that there had been no discussions between the senior people at the Southampton Institute and Brunel University. Plainly there had been."

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