Plymouth rocked by fiscal irregularities

Leaks reveal examples of senior staff breaking the university's financial rules. Melanie Newman writes

December 17, 2009

Questions have been raised about employment practices and payments at the University of Plymouth.

Leaked documents show that members of staff had relatives working for them and made payments to external organisations that did not comply with the institution's own rules.

In 2007-08, Plymouth carried out an investigation into financial malfeasance by a senior staff member who was alleged to have run up large expenses on trips abroad and purchased lingerie for a female colleague on a faculty credit card.

The employee was placed on gardening leave before taking early retirement last year.

Times Higher Education has also learnt that other staff arranged for family members to work with them.

One was Jon Nichol, director of the faculty of education's Innovation and Enterprise Unit, who in 2008 signed a "visiting academic form" authorising a payment of £600 to his daughter for "teaching support and analysis".

Professor Nichol was suspended in November 2008 while an investigation into the payment was carried out. He said that he had not noticed that the form he was given to sign was for a visiting academic and added that his daughter had worked for 83 hours at £7.22 an hour.

The university's investigation concluded that he had not been dishonest but that there had been "a failure in his performance". His suspension was lifted in December 2008.

Questions were also raised about a series of payments Professor Nichol made to a local authority from a pot of money set aside to help student teachers gain experience.

Although there is no suggestion that Professor Nichol gained from the payments, which ran into tens of thousands of pounds, questions were asked by senior managers about whether they were in line with Plymouth's internal rules.

One of those to query the payments was Michael Totterdell, pro vice-chancellor and dean of education, who says in an email sent at the time that they were "a cause for concern".

He also asks how they could be "reconfigured" to meet financial regulations.

In an email to Roland Buckley, human resources director, and Sarah Jones, finance director, in January 2009, Professor Totterdell notes that sums had been committed "on the basis of terms that are unclear with respect to their meeting financial regulations and the criteria of transparent accountability" likely to be assessed during an audit.

He suggests that all the payments should be made under revised terms and asks Ms Jones whether he could do so "without being seen to be an accessory to non-compliance with the normal financial framework".

Ms Jones reassured Professor Totterdell that he could.

In March 2009, an academic who had raised concerns about the payments filed a grievance against Professor Nichol, alleging that he had bullied and harassed her.

Another female member of staff also made a complaint about his conduct.

Professor Nichol was suspended for a second time on 5 May and left the university the same month, taking early retirement before the outstanding grievances were dealt with.

A Plymouth spokeswoman said: "The university takes very seriously its financial duties as a publicly accountable body. When financial irregularities are brought to our attention, they are properly investigated and dealt with."

She added: "A comprehensive audit of accounting arrangements within the faculty was carried out by the university's internal auditors in April 2009.

"The auditors' opinion was that 'substantial assurance can be given to the adequacy of the control environment and that substantial assurance can be given to the effectiveness of those controls relating to the risk areas examined in the review of the faculty of education'."

Professor Nichol declined to comment.

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