Whistleblowers: Middlesex under fire over debt collection

April 19, 2002

Middlesex under fire over debt collection
Middlesex University's vice-chancellor Michael Driscoll said last week that the university's income was £1 million less than predicted, "mainly because present and past students owe us money". The statement, coupled with the announcement that 200 jobs may be lost, came as a shock to staff - because The THES warned as early as November 1999 that Middlesex was having problems collecting student fees.

It said that the university was using a firm of debt collectors to collect unpaid fees, but "it is understood that Middlesex's policy has caused administrative problems. A member of staff has complained that the university fails to employ internal sanctions" and that students who had not paid fees were allowed to attend classes and sit exams, causing cash-flow, administrative and academic problems.

Complaints about Middlesex's debt-collection policy formed part of an inquiry by the Higher Education Funding Council for England. Hefce looked at issues raised by a Middlesex whistleblower, "Professor X", who was disciplined in breach of procedures after raising complaints inside the university. Middlesex settled the professor's claim for constructive dismissal without admitting liability.

Hefce refused to release its report, but The THES obtained an account of its findings from the National Audit Office, which said that although some financial and quality-control problems were uncovered, there was no cause for concern about the debt-collection policy.

The NAO said: "There were some problems over financial control and debt collection (but) the university successfully pursues student debtI Hefce does make a couple of recommendations regarding financial control and internal audit reports on debt management, and these have been accepted by the university."

Professor X felt the Hefce inquiry, in which the council's audit team simply asked the university to respond to issues rather than investigating, was not sufficiently robust. But David Blunkett, then the secretary of state for education, said: "I am satisfied that the Hefce audit service, working with the NAO, has fully investigated the issues within its remit. It made several recommendations to the university and its implementation will be followed up and monitored."

He added: "It is due to your intervention that these issues have been investigated and addressed where necessary, and I am grateful to you for this."

This week, Professor X said: "It is disgusting that after so much sacrifice by colleagues and so many assurances, so little has changed." Middlesex spokeswoman Marie Owens said: "I am not going to debate with The THES issues from 1999." Hefce did not comment.

Hefce investigated over maladministration claim
The parliamentary ombudsman is investigating a whistleblower's complaints of maladministration against Hefce. The ombudsman will also examine claims that the council denied the whistleblower access to information.

Anthony Beck, a former senior law lecturer at London Guildhall University, told Hefce of concerns about his former employer last year. Hefce declined to examine his complaints, arguing that most issues were matters subject to internal review, matters of personal grievance or matters referred to employment law, all outside its remit.

Not satisfied with Hefce's response, Mr Beck invoked the council's complaints procedures. But his complaint was dismissed at all stages.

Mr Beck has complained to the ombudsman that the council broke assurances that his original concerns would be dealt with. He also uncovered inconsistencies in documentation that he had received from the council. Hefce acknowledged these inconsistencies, accepting that there were two versions of a consultant's report, with different pagination and contents pages. But it said this was an innocent administrative error with no bearing on the investigations.

In a letter to Mr Beck's MP, the Office of the Parliamentary Commissioner for Administration said: "It appears to me that the complaint is one that the ombudsman can and should investigate."

Hefce said: "The ombudsman is investigating Mr Beck's complaintsI We are cooperating with the investigation."

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