Whistleblowers: Hefce oversees review of complaints process

May 17, 2002

Funding chiefs are monitoring reforms to student complaints procedures at the University of Central Lancashire after a blind student with one leg suffered unnecessary distress over the handling of his complaints.

The THES reported in December last year that the university had paid £8,000 to mature student Peter Nicholson to settle his claim of disability discrimination out of court, without admitting liability. Mr Nicholson, who uses a wheelchair and requires special teaching materials, was not given proper support when he enrolled on a diploma course in 2000.

The university accepted it had not adequately supported his needs when he joined the course and had failed to follow the correct procedures when he complained. Staff involved in the complaint "did not exhibit the most appropriate behaviour", protracting the dispute and causing unnecessary distress, and "process was not complied with", the university said after an internal investigation.

This week The THES has learnt that the Higher Education Funding Council for England has been monitoring the situation. Hefce's chief auditor Paul Greaves has written to Mr Nicholson confirming that he has asked Central Lancashire's vice-chancellor for an explanation.

"It is evident from your comments to me and from the university's explanation of events that the complaints process did not run smoothly," he wrote. "I want to be confident that the complaints procedure would work more smoothly in future." He said the university had begun a major review of its 1995 procedures, "with a view to ensuring compliance with the Quality Assurance Agency's new code of practice on student complaints".

He wrote: "I have asked to be given a copy of the final version (of the reformed procedures) and we will assess its operation when we next undertake routine Hefce audit work at the university, probably in late 2003."

Mr Greaves also said in the letter that the funding council was satisfied that the university was ready to learn from the case to improve its disability awareness. "I can report a clear stated commitment to learn from your case and to promote enhanced disability awareness at all levels."

He said the university was offering staff training and was developing leaflets and briefing sessions.

A spokeswoman for Central Lancashire said the university did not "wish to comment on the situation".

Evans wins latest round in Cambridge dispute
Campaigning Cambridge lecturer Gill Evans cleared an early hurdle in her potentially epic High Court battle against the ancient university last week after Cambridge's lawyers failed to have her application for judicial review thrown out.

Dr Evans is seeking judicial review of the university's procedures for promoting academic staff. She claims that her high-profile criticisms of the university's governance arrangements and her disputes with key Cambridge officers, have meant that her personal applications for promotion have been unfairly blocked.

The THES reported last year that Dr Evans had been recommended for a professorship by her faculty peers, who said the merits of her application were outstanding. But her promotion was blocked at the last hurdle by a central committee.

In the High Court last week, the university argued that Dr Evans's employment disputes were a private, contractual matter, not a matter of public law, and were therefore not a matter for the High Court. It said the case should be dismissed.

But the judge accepted that Dr Evans had a legitimate case to argue that Cambridge was indeed a public body, subject to public law, and gave her leave to submit further detailed arguments to sort out the university's status once and for all.

Tim Mead, registrary at Cambridge, said that Dr Evans had been granted leave only on a preliminary point, and that her complaints about the fairness of the promotions procedures had not been dealt with. "Our position is that this is a matter for the county court or employment tribunal and we have a strong defence against her claims of unfairness," he said.

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