Whistleblowing in HE: Is it all about to change?
The new Office for Students (OfS), legally came into force in January 2018. Under this new regulator whistleblowing in UK higher education is set to change, and quite rightly offers employees who are thinking of speaking out an extra source of support.
As part of its role, the regulator will monitor institutions to ensure that they are not breaching their conditions of registration. Whilst monitoring will take various forms, one area of interest for the OfS will be information obtained via whistleblowing.
However, for HE institutions, the OfS’ interest in whistleblowing may consequently place additional pressures on senior members of management and Governors if the number of whistleblowers increases significantly.
What is Whistleblowing?
The current legislation regarding whistleblowing, the Public Disclosure Act 1998, originated to protect workers from detrimental treatment from their employer or dismissal if, in the public interest, they were to blow the whistle on perceived wrongdoing.
Within the Act, the employee must reasonably believe that the information they hold relates to one of the following six specified types of wrongdoing: criminal offences; breach of a legal obligation; miscarriages of justice; danger to the health and safety of any individual; damage to the environment; or the deliberate concealing of information about any of the above.
Out with the old and in with the new
Whilst institutions are likely to have whistleblowing policies and procedures in place, their experience of receiving and addressing whistleblowing complaints may be quite limited.
Policies tend to have similar themes and processes across institutions, particularly in terms of routes for escalation. For example, initial disclosures are often made to a senior individual within the organisation, with any following investigation of the issue carried out by a further senior member of management before the case is referred to the Vice-Chancellor or the Board of Governors, for further consideration and/or a hearing, and an ultimate decision on proposed action.
This process not only reflects the seriousness with which whistleblowing issues must be taken, it also demonstrates the length of time senior members of institutions can spend addressing whistleblowing disclosures.
Given the OfS’ potential reliance on whistleblowing as a source of information, the number of internal whistleblowing disclosures is likely to rise.
Whilst the OfS itself is unlikely to give any guidance around what a good whistleblowing policy should include, institutions should ensure that all disclosures are dealt with swiftly, directed through the correct channels and that rapid action is taken to address the problems.
It’s important to note some of the potential effects that the new reporting requirements may have on administrative processes. In the event of disclosures rising, senior members in the institution will have to dedicate more time to the proper investigation of individual cases. With this in mind, institutions must consider whether their current procedures are fit for purpose and whether they have the capacity to deal with a potential increase.
Correctly handling a rise in whistleblowing disclosures
It can be helpful to look at how other sectors have dealt with a rise in disclosures. For instance, the NHS made the decision to nominate an independent and impartial individual within each NHS Trust, titled a ‘Freedom to Speak Up Guardian’ to handle disclosures. In cases where institutions find that they are experiencing a large increase in whistleblowing disclosures, having a dedicated person to manage these enquiries may streamline the process.
However, from a whistleblower’s point of view, it is crucial that institutions appreciate the severity of every disclosure. Therefore, it must not appear as though they are being passed onto an administration department. Yet, a balance must be found between recognising the importance of each disclosure and allowing policies to restrict the institution.
How to prepare
For those institutions who believe that their policies need updating, it is advised that they start by evaluating the number of people involved in any one complaint and consider whether the procedure can be streamlined. It should be highlighted that this is not to underplay the continued importance of whistleblowing, but rather to understand whether certain elements of the procedure can be made more efficient.
The introduction of the new OfS should be a positive move for HE institutions, meaning that they can create a culture where staff feel confident to report wrongdoings and breaches of the law, whilst being reassured that these will be handled correctly.