Whistleblowers: Free speech row goes on

August 3, 2001

A medical student has quit Sheffield University in protest after it called him to a disciplinary hearing over his role in highlighting allegations of racism at the Sheffield Royal Hallamshire Hospital.

The THES reported in April that Sushant Varma had invented fictional job applicants and had used fake CVs to apply for four senior house officer posts at the hospital in a bid to highlight his concerns about discrimination.

Dr Varma used near identical CVs, one purporting to come from a candidate with a name suggesting Indian ethnicity, the other from a white candidate.

The white candidate appeared to be more successful than the ethnic minority candidate, being invited to all interviews. The Asian candidate was invited to only two.

The hospital denied race discrimination and said that there had been subtle differences in the work experience of the two fictional applicants, explaining the discrepancies in their success rates.

Dr Varma's findings were reported in the university's student newspaper, The Steel Press , which called for an investigation. Shortly afterwards he was summoned to a disciplinary hearing in which he was accused of bringing the university into disrepute.

Dr Varma has a long history of difficulties with Sheffield University, where he has an outstanding grievance case against a number of his tutors.

As a result of his concerns about his tuition, he had been sitting his medical exams independently of the university, through the Society of Apothecaries' examination programme.

Students can qualify as doctors through the society, as a member of the United Examining Board, which is the only non-university medical licensing body in the United Kingdom. Dr Varma qualified as a doctor under this programme last month.

He confirmed this week that he had resigned from the university. He said he was willing to go ahead with the disciplinary hearing to defend himself even though he was no longer a member of the university.

His solicitor, Richard Price, said: "As a solicitor specialising in civil liberties and human rights, I am extremely surprised an academic institution is seeking to discipline students for effectively trying to expose racism."

The disciplinary process was instigated because The Steel Press directly linked the discrimination allegations against the Hallamshire hospital with the university's medical school. Appointments at senior house officer level are the responsibility of the National Health Service trust rather than the university.

Pam Enderby, the medical school's dean, made a formal complaint to Sheffield's registrar, David Fletcher, "against all those responsible in any way for this article".

She said: "The medical school has no involvement in the selection of senior house officers. Thus the article is defamatory."

At the end of June, by which time the student newspaper had apologised to the medical school, Mr Fletcher summoned Dr Varma to a formal disciplinary meeting.

Dr Varma was charged: "You engaged in behaviour which brought the university into disrepute when you assisted in the preparation of an article entitled 'Race row', published in The Steel Press , in which it was recklessly alleged that the medical school of the university had discriminated on racial grounds in short-listing for appointments."

Mr Price, head of community law at Howells solicitors, said: "It appears there was a genuine mistake by the newspaper which it has apologised for. This raises very grave concerns about the issues of freedom of speech and a student's right to freedom of expression."

The university said no one was available to comment. No date has been set for the hearing, and it is understood that the university will not pursue the matter.

Want to blow the whistle?

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

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