MPs single out whistleblower case for scrutiny

Select committee says treatment of Manchester Met lecturer warranted specific coverage. Hannah Fearn reports

July 31, 2009

A cross-party committee of MPs will highlight the plight of an academic whistleblower in a major report on higher education to be published this weekend.

Walter Cairns, a law lecturer at Manchester Metropolitan University, claimed that he was scapegoated by the institution after giving evidence about alleged grade inflation to the Innovation, Universities, Science and Skills (IUSS) Committee.

He was ejected from Manchester Met’s academic board after he wrote to tell the committee that marks on a course he taught were raised because its failure rate, 85 per cent, was too high.

His case will come under detailed scrutiny when the committee publishes the findings of its nine-month inquiry on students and universities this weekend.

Speaking to Times Higher Education before the report’s publication, Phil Willis, chairman of the committee, said the way Manchester Met handled Mr Cairns’ revelations “took the whole committee by surprise”.

“Because of the range of issues that were brought to our attention, the case at Manchester Met was of sufficient gravity that it required us to investigate it as a specific issue in our report,” he said.

In his written submission to MPs, which concerns a course he taught in 2004-05, Mr Cairns states that marks were changed without his consent despite initial indications from an external examiner that his marking was appropriate.

The university issued a robust defence, saying that it had followed correct procedures and that the abnormally high failure rate reflected poor teaching.

Following coverage of his evidence in Times Higher Education, Mr Cairns was in March dismissed from Manchester Met’s academic board after a vote of no confidence instigated by John Brooks, the vice-chancellor.

The university said Mr Cairns had failed to use the appropriate procedures to raise his concerns.

Mr Cairns has since been re-elected and will attend board meetings again from October.

Mr Willis said: “Academic freedom is a very important principle, which the committee has considered very carefully during the inquiry, and indeed will be making specific recommendations about when it reports.

“Our main concern is to have the highest possible quality of higher education that we can afford and deliver. Part of that is preserving the right of academics to whistleblow when they wish to question standards in individual institutions. Our concern was that when whistleblowers gave evidence to the committee, their evidence should be protected. They should not be punished.”

The select committee report will be published in full on Sunday, when analysis of its findings and recommendations will be made available on Times Higher Education’s website.

Mr Cairns said the select committee had informed him that the report would cover the issues he had raised, as well as the “ructions” that followed. He said he welcomed the report and hoped it would be hard-hitting.

“I will be extremely disappointed if the IUSS committee takes no concrete action on my dismissal from Manchester Met’s academic board,” he said.

Mr Cairns added that he hoped the issue would be referred to the Parliamentary Committee on Standards and Privileges.

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