How 'things have changed' at MUBS

December 17, 1999

Phil Baty looks at the issues that have tarnished Middlesex University Business School's reputation in recent months

Middlesex University's flagship business school is under attack from inside and out.

Academics are split over an employment dispute in which it is accused of victimising a whistleblower. The case, set to be one of the first under legislation to protect whistleblowers, has cast a long shadow over the school.

The case calls into doubt the school's attitude to an employment law area in which it claims academic expertise - public interest disclosure and the protection of whistleblowers. And it raises questions about the quality of provision on offer at the school, which teaches 25 per cent of Middlesex's 22,000 undergraduate students and 36 per cent of its postgraduates, providing the university's biggest source of income.

Now an external examiner's report on postgraduate accounting and finance programmes in the business school for 1998-99 has raised "a number of serious concerns about academic content, quality and administration". And the whistleblower case comes alongside a separate employment tribunal complaint from a member of the administrative staff from the business school's Hendon campus.

Just over a year ago, former dean David Kirby left abruptly. He went on a sabbatical with a gagging clause last summer after he tried unsuccessfully to impose a new financial management system.

Academics in the business school and in the university at large are now questioning its willingness to embrace a proper complaints procedure and a culture of free speech. Concern was raised at Middlesex in summer 1998, following controversy over the dismissal of Suzi Clark, the editor of the university's now defunct newsletter, North Circular.

The whistleblower case

The claim for compensation under the Public Interest Disclosure Act is to be made by Professor X, a senior business school academic and research manager who was sacked in November this year for alleged bullying. Friends have asked that Professor X not be named.

The university maintains that Professor X's alleged bullying was sufficiently serious to warrant dismissal. But the new dean of the business school, Dennis Hardy, has conceded that the allegations of bullying stem from Professor X's outspoken efforts to address issues of research quality and financial probity.

There have been no official questions about the quality of the professor's work, and deputy vice-chancellor Ken Goulding and Professor Hardy have both accepted that Middlesex breached its own procedures during its moves to sack Professor X.

Professor Hardy has conceded that Professor X's behaviour is driven in part by "high ideals" and the "single-minded dedication" with which the professor pursued an improvement in the research group's research profile.

He has also acknowledged that Professor X has at times pursued "laudable aims" and "enjoys loyal support from a number of colleagues" who are "appreciative" and supportive of the professor's efforts to raise the research profile.

However, many other members of staff complained of being bullied by Professor X. Professor Hardy said that Professor X's behaviour was disruptive and had caused "distress and disarray".

Professor X and other staff members had raised concerns about an open and distance learning (ODL)course designed to enable qualified accountants to obtain a degree in accounting on completion of three short courses, equivalent to a sixth of the full Middlesex University degree. The Pounds 1,500 programme was set up outside Middlesex's usual quality control rules, though the university said that it was approved through the proper academic procedures.

Professor X had questioned the paying of an external organisation to administer the courses - an arrangement subsequently stopped - and the potential conflict of interest in employing an external examiner to write programmes for the ODL courses.

Professor Hardy dismissed Professor X's suggestion of financial irregularities as "rumours". But he acknowledged that the matters were still being investigated.

Professor X's friends maintain that whatever the substance of the concerns, they were all raised properly. The professor first raised them orally with the line manager, David Kirby. Professor Kirby requested a formal submission of the allegations and "this led to (Professor X) speaking to the finance director and then putting in writing the allegations," the university said.

"University executive decided to examine all the allegations through line management. David KirbyI found no substance to the allegations made," the university said. However, it is understood that he reserved judgement, saying that the matter needed proper external scrutiny. A later report was completed late last month by accountants KPMG. The university said that the KPMG report found no evidence of the misappropriation of money.

The university has declined to release the KPMG report and will not discuss the review team's remit.

Procedural errors

Professor Hardy claims that a deterioration in staff relations "coincided directly" with Professor X's arrival at the business school in September 1998, but it took the university almost a year to raise officially concerns about Professor X's management style, in breach of probation rules.

Allegations of bullying and Professor Hardy's recommendation for dismissal were first brought to Professor X's attention formally this summer as part of a probationary report. But Professor Hardy admitted that Professor X had not been given a report after six months on probation, as required under procedures.

Deputy vice-chancellor Ken Goulding, confirming the decision to dismiss Professor X, accepted the complaint that "probation procedure was not followed to the letter". Professor Hardy also accepted this, saying the procedural breach was "unfortunate" but that it should not matter, because the professor had been "repeatedly given oral feedback" on behaviour-related problems by Professor Kirby.

Professor X's lawyers have advised the university that they believe the professor has been "victimised and harassed" and has a case under the Public Interest Disclosure Act for compensation at an employment tribunal.

Professor X's appeal against dismissal is expected to be heard in the new year. The university declined to discuss allegations that Professor X has been victimised, saying that it does not discuss matters regarding individual members of staff.

Cause for complaint?

The THES has obtained a four-page annual report on MUBS programmes from MUBS's external examiner Prem Sikka, a professor of accounting at Essex University, for all postgraduate modules in accounting and finance programmes in the business school for 1998-99. It lists 23 areas of concern.

Many criticisms are based on a perceived lack of intellectual rigour. "Hardly any students (at Middlesex Business School) made any reference to recent (say within the last five years) intellectual developments," said Professor Sikka.

He said that the masters courses "seem to be considerably lighter than the comparable courses in other universities. Many of the exam questions seemed to be a pale shadow of the undergraduate and professional curriculum. The reading lists rarely encouraged students to read articles. Most exam questions rarely delved into any theory or practiceI I have already indicated that from the academic year 1999-2000 I will have considerable difficulty in approving the exam papers of the present academic standards."

But Professor Sikka reserved his worst criticisms for matters of administrative and bureaucratic control. He said that "unfeasible" deadlines imposed by Middlesex had made it almost impossible for him to fulfil his responsibilities. In one instance, he said, he had received exam scripts on the day before the external exam board meeting; in another case, he was given less than 24 hours to approve exam papers.

"The internal quality-control procedures appear to be lax," he said. Students received incomplete exam papers, there were no procedures for reporting exam room "incidents", and "it appears to me that the examination processes are not under 'proper' internal control", said Professor Sikka. Exam papers do not all carry identical rubric and "all masters' exam scripts do not appear to be doublemarked", he said.

"There are considerable discrepancies in the range of marks for the course work and the exams," he said. "The course work marks are much higher than the exams ... (and) the gap between the two gives rise to some cause for concern."

Professor Sikka said information systems were also lacking. "It seems to me that a thorough review of the computer software and assessment regulations is needed. Without a clear list of the student marks and summaries, it is difficult to see how the exam board can properly discharge its responsibilities."

Middlesex defended the quality of its business school provision. "Not all external examiner comments are agreed with by the university and there is certainly no law of external examiner infallibility," it said.

The university pointed to its success in gaining accreditation from the Board of Accreditation of Accountancy Educational Courses. Middlesex said that the BAAEC, which represents four leading professional accountancy bodies, told it that "quality assurance mechanisms are well codified" at the business school, and that "the curriculum is maturing" and "the university deserves recognition".

But critics say that this should be qualified. BAAEC accredits only one scheme at Middlesex, its BA (hons) in accounting and finance. And as BAAEC's accreditation manager Susan Sutcliffe explained: "There is a strong element of self-assessment for our applicantsI given this, it is perhaps not surprising that the first-time success rate for our primary level of accreditation is in the order of 80 per cent. This rises to 95 per cent taking into account changes negotiated to satisfy professional needs." The BAAEC accredits 179 courses at 78 institutions.

The THES reported in October that Middlesex was discussing how to iron out an anomaly that meant that students who fail masters degree courses in the business school had been able to gain other masters degree courses with a lower pass mark. The university's head of quality, Geoffrey Alderman, warned internally that the situation left the "clear implication that the university runs two standards of masters awards", with a consequent devaluing of the masters programme that had the lower pass mark. The university, however, insisted that there was no dumbing down and that the situation was "perfectly legitimate".

The THES has obtained documents that show that at least some staff have been under the impression that the dual system was in place to allow lucrative fee-paying overseas students "an escape route" from failure. Abby Ghobadian, director of research and postgraduate studies, wrote in an internal memo earlier this year: "Historically as I understand it, the (masters with lower pass mark) was used as an escape route for students who were not quite good enough for the named masters. Pat McGoldrick (an MUBS administrator) argues that provision of this escape route is important and without it we will lose overseas market. There is logic to this argument."

The university has now decided to abandon the dual marking system.

A culture of fear?

Before the Public Interest Disclosure Act became law, the university clarified its position on free speech and its policy on staff complaints. A policy on whistleblowing was published, to take effect in January 1999.

It should have been simple. The business school was already selling itself in publicity material on the basis of its expertise on whistleblowing, researching employers' attitudes to staff complaints and offering advice to industry on proper policies. MUBS PhD student Kate Schroder was writing her doctorate on whistleblowing procedures from firsthand experience. She had been sacked by training provider Sight and Sound Education in 1996 after blowing the whistle on a qualifications fraud. She was being supervised by MUBS's reader in employment law David Lewis, an expert in public interest disclosure.

But Ms Schroder's expertise was not used and she has criticised Middlesex's policy. Indeed, Ms Schroder recently left MUBS without completing her PhD, following a row over the university's attempts to interfere with her research. Case studies she had been pursuing for her thesis included at least one person from inside Middlesex, and she had been told by her supervisor that public discussion of her work would make the vice-chancellor "nervous". Public discussions about her work - indeed "all references to the work being done on whistleblowing at Middlesex" - "should be checked with me (David Lewis)", she was told.

In drafting its policy on whistleblowing, the university appears to have ignored best practice advice from its own expert, Dr Lewis, who has privately criticised the policy. He has declined to talk to The THES about the university's whistleblowing policy.

The policy has also been criticised by lecturers' union Natfhe's national expert in employment law, Liz Allen. After conducting a "blind" review of the policy for The THES, she said that it was "grudging", and put too much emphasis on keeping complaints internal. It also highlighted too prominently the penalties for whistleblowing in the wrong place and in the wrong way, which Natfhe said could deter people from complaining, the opposite of what the legislation intended.

Natfhe's local branch had expressed frustration at being largely excluded from discussions over the drafting of the policy.

The university has said that it is committed to its academic work on whistleblowing, and that it took eight months to develop the policy, with advice from the Heads of University Administration.

Middlesex has an explicit policy statement on openness. It says: "The university's mission, vision and values statements are based on the premise of providing an open and honest environment for educational and personal development, and for the creation and transmission of ideas and knowledge. Accordingly, the university will operate on the basis of openness in management and the right to information."

But for many, this policy rings hollow. In summer 1998, Natfhe attacked Middlesex's management for creating a "climate of fear", claiming that the executive was "determined to restrict free speech and impose a rule of silence on anyone who voices real criticism".

"There was a time, not so long ago," Natfhe said, "when staff were proud to work at Middlesex because it was a place where people met freely and openly spoke their mindsI Well, things have changed."

The university said that Dennis Hardy was unavailable to be interviewed by The THES.

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