Whistleblowers: Alumni call for visitor to allay finance fears

October 31, 2003

Oxford University alumni are demanding assurances over the financial viability and governance of Harris Manchester College after a special investigation by The THES .

As The THES went to press, 30 alumni had signed an "open letter" to Sir Eric Anderson, provost of Eton College, who deals with complaints against Harris Manchester as its quasi-judicial visitor. They ask "what steps you are taking to resolve the very worrying issues raised" in The THES investigation?

The THES reported on September 26 that HMC, the only Oxford college that caters exclusively for mature students (mainly from state schools), faces questions over its financial viability.

It emerged that HMC appears to be in breach of the conditions under which it became an Oxford college in 1996. The university said in 1994 that the college could begin the process of becoming a formal Oxford college if it raised an endowment of £4 million. Lord Harris of Peckham pledged £3 million to add to its existing pot of £900,000, to be paid at £500,000 a year for six years.

Minutes of a governing body meeting in 2000 described the relationship between the college and Lord Harris as "blurred and unravelled".

Lord Harris told The THES he had given his £3 million, but not at Pounds 500,000 a year, and said the endowment stood at £1.97 million.

The college said this figure was wrong but would not disclose the official total.

The letter to Sir Eric, whose signatories include former HMC governor Nicholas Ford and Nottingham University emeritus history professor Michael Jones, says: "Have the funds for the endowment, stipulated by Hebdomadal Council in 1994 as a condition for HMC's admittance to full collegiate status, actually been received from the Harris family? If the money has indeed been paid in full, as Lord Harris asserts, why does it not appear in the endowment?"

The letter also draws Sir Eric's attention to governance problems raised by The THES .

It emerged that in 1998, five members of the college's governing body brought a number of concerns to the college's then visitor, Sir Tony Wrigley. They raised concerns about the conduct of meetings, the use of the casting vote, the membership of the governing body and the payment of stipends by the principal without reference to the governing body.

In early 1999, Sir Tony, then master of Corpus Christie College, Cambridge, ruled that the use of the casting vote had been "most unusual" and ruled it should not be used when there are questions about the ability of the chairman to make impartial judgements.

But he declined to rule on the question of unauthorised payments by principal Ralf Waller. He recommended that the college bring in an arbitrator, but no arbitrator was brought in.

The alumni's letter has been copied to university chancellor Chris Patten and Oxford's vice-chancellor Sir Colin Lucas.

HMC principal Ralph Waller said the visitor had not received the letter as The THES went to press, and added: "I can assure you that there is no cause for concern about the future of Harris Manchester College."

Want to blow the whistle?

Contact Phil Baty on 020 7782 3298 or email him at phil.baty@thes.co.uk

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