Fraud is main source of concern

13th October 2000 at 01:00
NINETEEN whistleblowers made complaints about colleges last year, and the Further Education Funding Council received 50 anonymous letters, new statistics show. Allegations of fraud and "irregularity" were the most common complaints, and the subject of 19 approaches to the council. Of the 69 complaints made between January 1999 to the end of March this year, 49 have been concluded.

Details are contained in the official FEFC report on complaints to the council published this week. David Melville, chief executive of the FEFC, said a full and frank discussion of these concerns was essential for the health of the sector and should not be viewed in a negative light.

It demonstrated the sector was operating in a "transparent and open manner". The report was more than a legal requirement, it provided a "useful checklist of the basic principles, including confidentiality, fairness and regular monitoring, together with examples of good practice".

A large number - 18 - were either withdrawn or resolved internally by the college. Five were upheld, and another eight partly upheld, but in five cases there was insufficient evidence to come to a conclusion.

There were five cases of allegations of misconduct, five objecting to employment practices, and the rest covered a variety of issues.

The most likely complainants were students, although in five instances staff had protested, eight parents had objected and a member of the public had also made one complaint.

The complaints were made under the council's Charter for Further Education and the Public Disclosure Act 1998 which protects whistleblowers.

In one instance parents complained about a course and the college then withdrew the offr of a place for their child.

It then "inaccurately attributed a lack of confidence in the college expressed by the complainants and the student as a reason for withdrawing the offer", did not follow its own complaints procedure, and even refused to supply a copy of the college procedures All the allegations were upheld.

In another case the college changed the duration of a course and did not explain clearly its relationship with a franchise partner.

The college "was advised to determine whether it is appropriate to pursue a court order for non-payment of fees before responding to concerns raised about a course". The council found no evidence to uphold a complaint that a college had abused and intimidated students with learning difficulties, or that it had substituted work done by past students for present students before an inspection.

There was insufficient evidence to decide whether a student had been unfairly excluded from a college football team, but the complaint had not been fairly considered. Nor could the council make up its mind about whether a student, who had to take re-sits, had been given sufficient support.

A student requested a refund of fees on the grounds of discrimination by a lecturer, and poor teaching. The college offered to refund half and then all of the fees. This was deemed "reasonable". Colleges should ensure that their disciplinary procedures are understood by students, and that they know the council can review decisions. The council can consider complaints made by whistleblowers if there is a public interest in disclosure. It will not normally act upon anonymous letters.

Circular 0025, obtainable from the FEFC. Website

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