Claims of fraud at University of the Arts London are among recent whistleblowing allegations received by England’s funding council.
Other allegations concerning English universities and colleges include claims about “unfair recruitment practices”, “academic research quality”, “financial malpractice” and the “competency” of a governing body.
Using the Freedom of Information Act, Times Higher Education obtained information on whistleblowing approaches that were received by the Higher Education Funding Council for England between October 2011 and March 2014. In total there were 21 cases.
In only three of the cases did Hefce require or advise the universities involved to take any action. In 10 cases, Hefce decided that the complaint was “unsubstantiated” or found that there was no evidence to back it up. In nine cases, some of them overlapping with the “unsubstantiated” claims, Hefce referred the complainants to other regulators or to the institutions involved as the matter did not fall under its powers.
One of the most serious allegations related to a case at University of the Arts London. The complaint was copied by the anonymous complainant to the Serious Fraud Office and the National Audit Office.
Hefce’s summary of the case states that it was an “allegation of fraud” and adds: “University investigated the allegations and is now taking legal action against the [alleged] perpetrators.
“Lessons learned exercise to be undertaken and improvements to be made to financial controls in this area of activity.”
THE asked University of the Arts London for further details of the case, but a university spokeswoman said: “We can confirm that legal action arising out of this investigation is still ongoing. It would therefore be inappropriate to comment.”
Another case where Hefce acted followed an “allegation regarding unfair recruitment practices” at a university. Hefce undertook “initial discussions to understand the institution’s view” and the institution “will be making improvements to the transparency of their recruitment”.
The Public Interest Disclosure Act 1998, which amended the Employment Rights Act 1996, established a degree of legal protection for whistleblowers, meaning that they would win an employment tribunal claim for unfair dismissal if they were sacked for blowing the whistle.
Of the 21 complaints received by Hefce, 10 complainants used the funding council’s public interest disclosure form to formally log their allegation as such.
A Hefce spokesman said: “Institutions are independent bodies, and we do not interfere unnecessarily in their operations.”
But he added that Hefce’s relationship with institutions is also “governed by the financial memorandum”, which “lays down requirements for the governance and management of institutions”, as well as by the Charities Act.
“Where allegations are received that these requirements are not being met, we must satisfy ourselves that the matter has been investigated, appropriate action taken and relevant people informed,” the spokesman said.
In a feature this week, THE looks at the experiences of some prominent whistleblowers and examines the legal protections for people who make public interest disclosures.