Gagging clause prevents inquiry into standards

Terms of academic's compromise agreement halt QAA and Hefce queries. Melanie Newman reports

June 18, 2009

Compromise agreements that gag departing academics may be impairing investigations into allegations of poor academic standards.

An academic who said he was dismissed after making allegations of plagiarism has stated that the Quality Assurance Agency (QAA) told him it could not investigate because he had signed an agreement.

Legal advice obtained by the Higher Education Funding Council for England suggested that he could be sued for breaching the agreement if he disclosed information covered by it.

Mahmoud El-Sayed, formerly a professor in the School of Sport and Exercise Sciences at Liverpool John Moores University, was dismissed in 2007. He sued for unfair dismissal and signed a compromise agreement in an out-of-court settlement.

In evidence to the Innovation, Universities, Science and Skills Committee, he said he had repeatedly raised concerns about plagiarism. He has been pushing the QAA and Hefce to investigate.

Following a telephone call to Hefce last July, he received an email from the head of assurance at Hefce, who said the QAA would decide how to respond.

Almost a year later, a QAA spokeswoman told him in another email that it was not able to investigate the allegations "because of the existence of a compromise agreement".

Only after the professor had given evidence to the select committee had Hefce been in a position to ask the QAA to investigate further, she said.

Professor El-Sayed said that earlier this year, John Selby, Hefce's director of education and participation, told him that the funding council had written to Liverpool John Moores.

Dr Selby said: "We made it clear in the letter that we recognised that they, like you, are bound by the confidentiality clauses in your compromise agreement and made clear that we were not asking them to breach them."

He also said that Hefce was unable to intervene in employment cases, prompting Adrian Jones, former University and College Union official for Liverpool, to claim that an "invisible wall" was blocking any investigation of allegations of mismanagement.

Professor El-Sayed said that he had never asked Hefce to intervene in his own employment case or to breach the compromise agreement.

Dr Selby said that the evidence did not back up the allegations of widespread plagiarism at Liverpool John Moores or the claim that the university had covered anything up.

"Both Professor El-Sayed and the university are bound by a compromise agreement, and we have throughout been very clear that we could not ask Professor El-Sayed to breach the agreement," Dr Selby said.

Hefce's governing code says that its assurance service must have unrestricted access to information including records, assets, personnel and premises.

A spokesman said: "In Professor El-Sayed's case we took legal advice, which was that any disclosure in this case would not be protected under the Public Interest Disclosure Act and would leave the discloser open to proceedings against him."

melanie.newman@tsleducation.com.

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