Surrey denies problem

July 21, 2000

Surrey University's vice-chancellor has condemned an anonymous circular to staff alleging mismanagement and low staff morale.

Patrick Dowling said that "anonymous letters of this kind do nothing" to help overcome the university's "challenging financial situation" or to help it meet its objective of remaining at the "forefront of universities". Above all, said Professor Dowling, staff should "work together constructively and openly".

But openness and collegiality is exactly what aggrieved staff - who were invited by the whistleblower to contact The THES - fear is being sacrificed at Surrey.

There is particular concern about the case of Geoffrey Darnton, whose work as a part-time lecturer dried up rapidly after he wrote to the vice-chancellor about management practices and low morale at the lucrative postgraduate Surrey European Management School. Mr Darnton has declined to comment because early next year an employment tribunal will hear his claim, under the terms of the Public Interest Disclosure Act, that he has been victimised for whistleblowing.

It is understood that Mr Darnton was unhappy about what he believed was a forced move from a full-time to a part-time lecturer's post at the SEMS in September 1999. He later claimed in a writ to the county court that work promised to him by the SEMS never fully materialised and that the work the SEMS had given him had not been paid for. Earlier this month, following an "order by consent" from the court, the university paid him several thousand pounds as a settlement.

Mr Darnton outlined a number of concerns about management practices and apparently low staff morale in a letter to Professor Dowling in January this year. Nine days later, SEMS deputy director Peter Kangis informed Mr Darnton that the letter represented a breakdown of trust and that his services would no longer be required.

Mr Darnton's allegations have been deemed sufficiently serious to warrant a formal external investigation, which was called by the vice-chancellor. The inquiry will not take place until after Mr Darnton's employment tribunal.

The Association of University Teachers Surrey branch representative, Roger Howland, said that while the whole university seemed to be suffering from "dreadful constraints" due to financial problems, "it would be fair to say that in SEMS there are greater incidences of difficulties than in most other schools". In the past year, staff turnover at the school has been 23 per cent.

A university spokesman confirmed that Surrey had recently settled a small claims court case involving Mr Darnton. He said the university was "vigorously contesting" the tribunal complaints, but could not comment further.

He said the inquiry into Mr Darnton's complaints has been set up under the university's public interest disclosure policy. He defended the SEMS staff turnover, claiming it was normal for Surrey, and that there "was no overall theme running through the pattern of departures".

The spokesman said that Surrey has "one of the most favourable staff-to-student ratios among UK universities". He also denied recent figures from the AUT, raised by the anonymous whistleblower, which said Surrey spends just 21 per cent of its total budget on academic staff, compared with a UK average of 35 per cent and a 44 per cent average among Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development countries.

SEMS head Paul Gamble was in Mauritius with his wife, on a trip paid for by the university, as The THES went to press. The university said he was away for just five full days and was on university business, carrying out several important duties. His wife's expenses were borne by the university, in line with its policy, because she "performed an ambassadorial role".

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