Schwartz slated for role in sacking

May 20, 2005

The Government's senior adviser on the fairness of university admissions has been criticised for the "deeply unfair treatment" of a senior colleague, writes Phil Baty.

The Watford Employment Tribunal this week described how Steven Schwartz, the vice-chancellor of Brunel University, presided over the victimisation of his marketing director, Harinder Bahra.

Releasing its full written reasoning after announcing its verdict last month, the tribunal said that Mr Bahra, who is of Indian origin, was summarily dismissed after revealing that he had an outstanding race discrimination case against his previous employer.

Professor Schwartz, who wrote a landmark report on university access last year, was personally criticised for ordering the sacking. The tribunal said Professor Schwartz's claim that Mr Bahra had been treated "fairly and appropriately" was "simply a travesty".

After 14 successful years in higher education, Mr Bahra resigned from his post as an associate dean at Southampton Institute in May 2003, and joined Brunel in June that year.

Things began to deteriorate when he revealed the following month that he had an outstanding race claim against Southampton. When Professor Schwartz heard the news, he asked why Mr Bahra did not drop the proceedings now that he had another job.

The tribunal said the question may have stemmed from an "innocent or benign" interest in Mr Bahra's welfare. "However, in the light of the deeply unfair treatment meted out to Mr Bahra later, the tribunal rejected that possible explanation," it said.

It found, instead, that Professor Schwartz's question was based on "a concern or fear" that the proceedings would bring Brunel bad publicity.

After the revelations, Steven Hodkinson, Mr Bahra's line manager, had "become suspicious and mistrustful", the tribunal said.

Professor Hodkinson said, in evidence, that a key reason for Mr Bahra's dismissal was a poor quality marketing strategy he had produced.

But he had initially congratulated Mr Bahra on producing "such a comprehensive document", a marketing expert had praised it and the strategy had been a first draft.

After an "indirect command" from the vice-chancellor, Mr Bahra was dismissed at a progress meeting on September 22, early in his 12-month probation period.

Professor Schwartz's decision to personally hear Mr Bahra's appeal was described by the tribunal as "surprising", given that he had ordered the dismissal.

The tribunal said the vice-chancellor had rejected Mr Bahra's appeal - without "any sort of meeting or hearing" and without apparently consulting "any appropriate persons" - claiming the university had acted in "a fair and appropriate manner".

The tribunal said: "It is simply a travesty to describe the university's treatment of Mr Bahra as 'fair and appropriate'. It was the very opposite."

The tribunal said ethnic minority staff were "substantially represented" at Brunel, and the university "had not shown any reluctance to (appoint Mr Bahra in the first place) on the grounds of his ethnic origin".

It ruled that Professor Hodkinson "did not subject him to less-favourable treatment on the grounds of his race".

"However, it is a legal truism that you do not need to have racist motives to treat someone less favourably on the grounds that they have brought... proceedings under the Race Relations Act," the tribunal said.

The tribunal concluded that Mr Bahra's dismissal contravened probationary and ordinary disciplinary procedures, "not to mention the principles of ordinary fairness". It said the true reason for this treatment was the fact Mr Bahra had brought proceedings against Southampton.

A spokeswoman for Brunel said: "While we are pleased that the tribunal found no evidence to support Mr Bahra's claim that he was treated unfavourably due to his race, we are disappointed with the second finding and we are reviewing the judgment with a view to seeking leave to appeal.

"As such, it would be inappropriate for us to comment until the process is complete."

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