THE National Audit Office has urged Scottish universities to clamp down on misconduct following evidence of "wrong-doing, irregularities and control weaknesses" at Glasgow Caledonian University.
A report by the NAO today says that few Scottish institutions have sufficient arrangements for whistleblowing, or for control of subsidiary companies, which could have prevented "disturbing" oversights at Glasgow Caledonian.
The NAO found that only one institution had acted fully on Scottish Higher Education Funding Council guidelines on controlling companies. Just three had introduced appropriate whistleblowing procedures.
A SHEFC investigation at Glasgow Caledonian uncovered irregularities in the use of "prestige" company cars, overseas travel, the employment of staff, and subsidiary companies.
The funding council found that former principal Stan Mason, who was fired for gross misconduct last September, had "improperly" accepted "more or less exclusive" use of both a Saab 900V6SE, provided by a subsidiary company, and a chauffeur-driven Jaguar XJ6, provided by the university. His wife, who was employed by neither the company nor the university, also used the Saab. Professor Mason earned Pounds 123,000 a year, SHEFC concluded that Professor Mason's use of the cars was an "improper use of public funds". His failure to inform the university of his other company car was a "serious and culpable omission", it said. By garaging the Jaguar at his home, for which the university paid him Pounds 2,400 as "compensation" for company car-related income tax, he acted contrary to the intention that it should be used as a pool car.
The funding council also concluded that excursions to exotic resorts made by Professor Mason, other senior staff and their spouses, at the university's expense were an "inappropriate" use of public funds.
In October 1993 a delegation of senior staff and their spouses led by Professor Mason flew to Batu Ferringhi Beach in Penang for a "debriefing" holiday following business visits to Malaysia and Singapore. A similar trip two years later was followed by a break at the resort of Kota Kinabalu, at a cost of Pounds 2,688. Delegates paid only Pounds 120 each for their spouses.
The funding council concluded that although the business trips were profitable, business-class travel at a total cost of Pounds 25,000 could not be justified, and the holidays were "inappropriate".
SHEFC raised concerns about an unclear relationship between the university and one of its subsidiary companies, GPE (Bulk Solids Handling) Ltd. It noted that since 1993 the only university court representative on the company board was Professor Mason, who had "a close professional and career interest in the company".
Professor Mason has taken the university to an industrial tribunal claiming unfair dismissal and is seeking reinstatement. Last week the tribunal heard he was improperly involved in the appointment of three university employees, one of whom was his daughter-in-law.
Michael Graham, a lay member of the university court who chaired an inquiry which resulted in Professor Mason's dismissal, told the tribunal that the former principal had inexcusably breached his authority in the appointment of Sadie Mason as recreational officer, Gillian Hughes as catering manager and Stephen McLaughlin as assistant catering manager. Mrs Hughes and Mr McLaughlin were the children of close friends of Professor Mason.
Professor Mason's lawyer, Alastair Cockburn, said the former principal had played no part in Mrs Mason's appointment. He became involved with the two other posts because of their importance and had been acting in the best interests of the university.
The tribunal has been adjourned until late May.