Fraud squad at Bilston

May 7, 1999

The fraud squad have been called into crisis-hit Bilston Community College following suspected financial irregularities.

West Midlands' Police this week confirmed: "We have been asked by the Further Education Funding Council to look into matters relating to the financial conduct of Bilston Community College. The matter has been referred to our fraud squad."

It is understood that following an audit of the Wolverhampton-based college, the FEFC passed its audit report to the police, suspecting irregularities. The police investigation follows the worst ever inspection report for a college and a collapse of financial management and governance.

A special inquiry by the FEFC last month found that the college's "preoccupation" with huge growth through franchised and international provision led to debts expected to reach Pounds 10 million. The report found that "propaganda and wishful thinking rather than hard facts" underpinned crucial management decision and that governors lacked the "business acumen" to monitor college affairs properly.

Staff were distracted from student priorities by "business ventures". The report also criticised wildly optimistic strategic plans and "unorthodox budget-setting".

Next week the FEFC will consider the report's recommendation to close the college.

Natfhe slams Middlesex's 'grudging' guidelines "I note and respect your commitment to freedom of speech and expression and can confirm that the university is also committed to those principles."

This was written in a letter by Middlesex University vice-chancellor Michael Driscoll to Suzi Clark, his head of media relations, just weeks before he sacked her for alleged misdemeanours, which included the charge that she "sought to assert her independence", and maintain a tradition of free speech, as editor of the university in-house newspaper, North Circular.

As Ms Clark was this week expected to lodge an unfair dismissal claim with the employment tribunal, the university continues to celebrate its commitment to free speech, notably with its high-profile research on whistleblowing in the workplace. A research team at Middlesex's business school, led by reader in employment law, David Lewis, offers best practice advice to trade unions and industry.

But this leading-edge advice appears to have been ignored by the researchers' own institution. Middlesex published its own guidance on whistleblowing earlier this year. The guidelines for staff have been criticised by both the university's own experts, and lecturers' union Natfhe.

Natfhe lawyer Liz Allen who reviewed the guidelines, but was not told where the material was from, said that they were "grudging", and "off-putting".

Middlesex says that initial complaints should be made to the clerk to the governors, who happens to be the pro vice-chancellor, Gareth Jones - not a first choice for staff who may have complaints against senior management. The law says staff should have a choice.

The Middlesex advice also includes the rather threatening warning that "action may be taken" against individuals who bring allegations that are "malicious or vexatious". It also warns: "As an internal policy is now in place, it is reasonable to expect members of the university to use that policy rather than to air complaints outside the institution."

This, Natfhe fears, is misleading. Under new legal protection, staff have a clear right to go outside the institution.

AMiddlesex spokeswoman said that the guidelines had been drawn up in good faith, according to advice from the Association of Heads of University Administrators, and that the material was subject to regular review.

Dr Lewis, a Natfhe representative as well as a whistleblowing expert, declined to comment about his employers' policy.

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