Whistleblowers: Middlesex not in clear

April 6, 2001

The education secretary has intervened to end confusion over investigations into mismanagement at Middlesex University.

The results of a confidential report by the Higher Education Funding Council for England, which examined management and quality concerns raised after investigations by The THES , had been clouded by doubt after statements by Middlesex that suggested the university had been given the all clear.

But the secretary of state is unequivocal: "The report did not exonerate the university." In a letter seen by The THES , David Blunkett confirmed last week that after the Hefce report: "The National Audit Office has concluded that where there were concerns arising from the investigations, these have been dealt with by the university or are being addressed and will be followed up."

The THES reported in February that Hefce had found problems with quality control, employment issues and financial management. Four key areas of concern identified in The THES 's investigations over the past two years had been confirmed, and Hefce had ordered improvements. But the university has stuck by earlier statements that appeared to contradict the findings of Hefce, the NAO and now the secretary of state for education.

In July last year, several months before the investigation was concluded, Middlesex's communications chief, Marie Jackson, issued a statement to The THES saying: "Hefce has made it clear to the university that it has no intention of pursuing further any of the issues it asked the university to comment on." Business school dean Dennis Parker reported to his staff, months before the investigation's end, that Hefce was "satisfied with the management within the university and school".

But almost eight months later, Mr Blunkett has confirmed in a letter to "Professor X", whose allegations sparked the investigations, that issues are still "being followed up" and that Hefce will monitor the "implementation of recommended changes" at Middlesex.

Mr Blunkett also paid tribute to Professor X, who was sacked by Middlesex for alleged bullying after she first raised concerns about quality and management at the university.

"It is due to your intervention that these issues have been investigated and addressed where necessary, and I am grateful to you for this. I am sure you will be pleased that your concerns have led to changes, for example, in the use of confidentiality clauses in severance cases." It is understood that Middlesex was told to stop unnecessarily gagging senior staff when they leave.

This week, the university was unrepentant. "The university has not seen the letter from the secretary of state to which you refer," Ms Jackson said. "The university has misled no one. The university stands by all its previous statements. The Hefce investigation found no support for any of the allegations made."

• Professor X and others who have departed Middlesex on less than amicable terms have noted the irony that the university is developing a degree of expertise on whistleblowing employment law.

Middlesex's David Lewis, a professor at the Centre for Research in Industrial and Commercial Law, this week published the results of a survey on "whistleblowing procedures in further and higher education". He found that although 92 per cent of institutions have internal policies on whistleblowing, most are not entering fully into the spirit of the new law.

Half of institutions with procedures do not offer independent advice to those who blow the whistle, Professor Lewis found. "We believe the unavailability of advice is a serious matter," he says in his report.

The report also found that although 90 per cent of institutions with whistleblowing policies had clear procedures providing for action to be taken against those who make malicious or vexatious complaints, only 72 per cent provided for action to be taken against those who victimise the whistleblowers.

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