Students and Universities - Innovation, Universities, Science and Skills Committee Contents


Walter Cairns

280. We explain at paragraph 231 that we received a number of submissions from academics alleging that their attempts to raise concerns about standards had been suppressed by their university authorities and that we decided not to investigate or become involved in individual cases in this inquiry. There was one exception. It concerned Walter Cairns, Senior Lecturer at Manchester Metropolitan University. In this chapter we set out the circumstances of the case concerning Mr Cairns and Manchester Metropolitan University and our conclusions, which are for the House.

281. In December 2008 Mr Cairns made a written submission to our inquiry. He contended that there had been a reduction in standards in the assessment of students' work. He said that the reason for the reduction related to the need to retain student numbers "because […] high failure rates would have dire economic consequences for the institution in general and probably for the individual tutors in particular". He alleged that the safeguards in place to protect standards, in the shape of internal and external second assessment, were inadequate for the purpose of countering this trend. Mr Cairns illustrated what he called "this sorry state of affairs" with a case study "based upon his own experience in organising, teaching and assessing various law courses on the International Business degree" at Manchester Metropolitan University.[523]

282. As with the other evidence we received, we published it on the Internet in February 2009, though in this case it was subject to slight excisions, agreed with Mr Cairns, to remove identification of individuals against whom criticisms were made.[524] Following publication of the submission on the Internet, The Times Higher[525] and the Manchester Evening News[526] published articles drawing on it on 5 and 16 March respectively.

283. The Academic Board of the University,[527] of which Mr Cairns was a member, met on 18 March and during the meeting Mr Cairns was removed from membership of the Board. Mr Cairns immediately contacted the Chairman by e-mail stating that the Board had passed a motion of no-confidence in him as a member of that Board, "thereby causing me to be expelled. The reason for this was my submission to the IUSS enquiry into Students and Universities".[528] Mr Cairns was asked to supply details of what had happened,[529] which he did on 23 March. He explained that:

    The question of the Select Committee submissions made by Susan Evans[530] and myself arose during the Vice-Chancellor's Report (Agenda item 3). He expressed his disquiet and disappointment, repeated the disgraceful slur that the contentious mark increase for International Business Law was largely due to the poor standard of my teaching, and invited comments.

    [After a discussion the] Vice Chancellor then said: "These contributions fully confirm my own views on the subject. I therefore propose a vote of no-confidence in Mr. Cairns which, if it succeeds, will cause him to leave this Board". The motion was duly seconded, the members of the Board (with one exception) duly raised their hands, and I was asked to leave—which I did.[531]

284. We were concerned that Mr Cairns had in practice been expelled from the Academic Board not because of purely internal issues within the University, which are no concern of ours, but because of the evidence he had given this Committee. The rules of the House of Commons are that molestation of, or threats against, those who have given evidence before the House or a committee may be treated by the House as a contempt.[532] Having consulted the Committee about Mr Cairns' e-mail, the Chairman wrote to the Vice-Chancellor of Manchester Metropolitan University, Professor John Brooks, on 26 March seeking the University's account of events.[533] The Vice-Chancellor replied on 3 April and, as Chair of the Academic Board, he expressed "regret for the fact that our action may have been perceived as punishing Mr Cairns who, we now appreciate, enjoys certain privileges as a result of acceptance by [the Committee] of the evidence he submitted".[534] The letter concluded:

    If the Committee consider that the Academic Board has violated the privilege enjoyed by Mr Cairns, and you consider that we may be at risk of being in contempt of the House as a consequence of the Academic Board decision, I am willing to reconvene the Board to reconsider the issue.

    I would be grateful for your view as to the appropriateness and efficiency of this course of action.[535]

285. In view of the question the Vice-Chancellor posed about reconvening the Board for the purpose, as it appeared, of reconsidering the expulsion, the Second Clerk of the Committee wrote to the Vice-Chancellor on 17 April.[536] A holding letter was sent to Mr Cairns. No reply had been received from the Vice-Chancellor when we considered the matter at our meeting on 6 May. Our preliminary view was that prima facie the removal of Mr Cairns from the Academic Board of the University may have been a contempt, which should be referred to the Standards and Privileges Committee of the House. But before reaching a final view we asked the Chairman to write to the University, to clarify whether the Academic Board was going to review its decision to expel Mr Cairns.[537] The Vice-Chancellor replied on 20 May.[538] We sought Mr Cairns' views,[539] which he supplied by e-mail on 21 May.[540]

286. In considering Mr Cairns' allegation we were mindful of a recent precedent concerning the protection of a witness who gave evidence to the Constitutional Affairs Committee in 2003.[541] Our job is not to reach a decision on whether a breach of privilege has taken place: that is primarily for the Committee on Standards and Privileges. Instead, our job is to form a view on whether prima facie a breach of privilege may have taken place and, where we come to the view that the test is met, whether to advise the House to refer the matter to the Committee on Standards and Privileges.

287. The key issue for us is whether the actions of the Academic Board in expelling Mr Cairns resulted from the publication of his evidence to us. In its letter of 3 April the University put two main arguments against the allegation of breach of privilege. First, it pointed out that there had been a long-standing dispute between Mr Cairns and the authorities at the University and that Mr Cairns had "failed to engage in the Academic Board processes (or other processes, which include a whistle-blowing procedure) and to accept their outcomes".[542] Second, the University argued that Mr Cairns in speaking to the press went "beyond that which the Select Committee has published as evidence".[543]

288. Mr Cairns made a submission to the inquiry which we found relevant, useful and informative. It is essential for Parliament and its committees to take evidence from witnesses without interference or threat. The University has not sought to argue that the Academic Board at its meeting on 18 March was unaware of the evidence submitted to us by Mr Cairns. In his letter of 3 April the Vice-Chancellor said that, although members of the Academic Board "were not provided with a copy of the submission to the Select Committee", members "were aware of the issues and of the views expressed in numerous press articles by Mr Cairns". He explained that it was "publication of these views that caused serious concern" to members of the Board "as only one side of a complex story was being presented, in a way that courted negative publicity".[544] It seems to us that the Vice-Chancellor and members of the Academic Board were aware of his evidence as reported in the press, particularly the pieces in The Times Higher and the Manchester Evening News, the latter published only two days before the Board meeting, and that there are grounds for concluding that this may have been the main stimulus from removing Mr Cairns from the Board on 18 March. The correct course for the University, if it had wished to challenge Mr Cairns' evidence, was to submit its own memorandum to the inquiry.

289. Turning to the University's second point, we note that the quotations attributed to Mr Cairns in both articles do not appear in the evidence we published. He has not indicated whether or not he spoke to the press but in view of the quotations we consider that there are grounds for concluding that he may have spoken to the press. In this case, however, the gist of the two newspaper reports appear to us to be based on the written evidence as published on the Internet. The main allegations—the 85% failure rate in the law examination, the assessment of the second examiner, the addition of 20 marks, the behaviour and qualifications of the external examiner and the actions of the University—are set out clearly in the published evidence. It appears to us that the articles in The Times Higher and the Manchester Evening News were built squarely on the published evidence and were reasonably accurate accounts of the evidence. We consider that any additional material—irrespective of where it came from—was not on its own such that it could be reasonably held to have led the University to take the action it did on 18 March.

290. We must add that we have concerns about the process adopted by the Vice-Chancellor and the Academic Board on 18 March. The Vice-Chancellor in his response to the Committee has not challenged Mr Cairns' account of the meeting. We are surprised and concerned that the Vice-Chancellor and the Board appear to have expelled Mr Cairns without affording him the right to respond to the allegations made. Mr Cairns, who is a lawyer and, by his action in contacting the Chairman following the events on 18 March, appears to have knowledge of the operation of parliamentary privilege, might have been in a position to warn the Board of the consequences of its actions. In the event the Board appears to have denied him a voice and as a result lost the possibility of obtaining advice on the implications of the course that it was taking.

291. In our view the action of the Vice-Chancellor and the Academic Board of Manchester Metropolitan University on 18 March 2009 in removing Mr Cairns from the Board could be regarded as interference with a witness and therefore a prima facie breach of privilege. If matters had remained there we would have consulted the Liaison Committee and requested the House to refer the matter to the Committee on Standards and Privileges.

292. In his reply to the Chairman's letter of 7 May asking whether the Academic Board was going to review its decision to expel Mr Cairns[545] the Vice-Chancellor in his letter of 20 May advised us that:

    Mr Cairns term of office on Academic Board completed at the end of this session. The process to re-appoint for the new session has now been completed and Mr Cairns will be appointed for a further term of office. I hope that the Select Committee feels that this addresses any issues of contempt that may have unintentionally occurred.[546]

293. We sought Mr Cairns' views,[547] which he supplied by e-mail on 21 May. He said that:

    I have been elected by my Faculty to serve for a new two-year term on the Academic Board. I would, however, add the following:

    (a) this in no way alters the unacceptable manner in which I was humiliated and given no right to reply to all the lies and distortions cast in my direction at the Academic Board meeting of 18 March, some of which were defamatory in the extreme;

    (b) my Faculty has remained unrepresented for two consecutive Board meetings, since the University did not even organise a by-election;

    (c) there is no guarantee whatsoever that the Vice-Chancellor will not repeat his little trick at any future meeting of the AB at which I am present.[548]

294. We found the decision whether to ask the House to refer the University's actions to the Committee on Standards and Privileges a very finely balanced one. In the end because the University has expressed regrets—albeit with reservations—and because Mr Cairns has rejoined the Academic Board, we have concluded that, while it is right to bring this serious matter to the attention of the House in this Report, in the circumstances we should not ask the House to refer the matter to the Committee on Standards and Privileges. We must, however, put on record that we deprecate the behaviour of the Vice-Chancellor and the members of the Academic Board of Manchester Metropolitan University not only for removing Mr Cairns from the Board on 18 March 2009, particularly as it appears without giving Mr Cairns the opportunity to respond, but also for the manner in which they have handled the matter since the events of 18 March. Having accepted that they made an error, the Vice-Chancellor and Academic Board should simply have accepted the consequence of their mistake, apologised and speedily restored Mr Cairns.

Susan Evans

295. On 2 June 2009 Ms Susan Evans, Lecturer in Economics at Manchester Metropolitan University, wrote to the Chairman of the Committee raising the response of her employer when information from her submission was published in the press. She said:

    In an article in the Sunday Times (8 March 2009)[549] that included information from my submission, the reported response from Manchester Metropolitan University was "We are extremely disappointed that a colleague has chosen to raise these issues externally".

    A similar response was reported in an article again concerning my submission that was published in the THE, 19-25 March 2009 edition.[550] […] Since a Parliamentary Committee requested the information, I would like to know how it is acceptable that a public sector employer responds in this way.

    If this is an acceptable response are people in future going to provide evidence, when so requested, to a Parliamentary Committee?

    I hope the Select Committee will raise this matter with the management of Manchester Metropolitan University.[551]

296. The quotation attributed by the Sunday Times to a spokeswoman for the University was as follows:

    Miss Evans expresses a lot of very personal views but presents very little objective information.

    There is no evidence staff are put under any pressure to bump up grades. We are extremely disappointed and upset that a colleague has chosen to raise these issues externally.[552]

297. In the case of Ms Evans we take the view that the University's action in making the statement to the press does not on this occasion constitute a threat or significant interference with the witness. We have therefore not raised the matter with the University ahead of the publication of this Report. We make it clear to Manchester Metropolitan University and to the higher education institutions in general that putting obstacles in the way of, or seeking to discourage through criticism, those who put evidence to Parliament or its committees are matters that we deprecate. We reiterate that the correct course for the University, if it had wished to challenge Ms Evans' evidence, was to submit its own memorandum to the inquiry.

523   Ev 537 Back

524   Ev 537-40 Back

525   "Claims that academic standards are slipping have been submitted to an inquiry on...", The Times Higher Education Supplement, 5 March 2009 Back

526   "Students given extra marks", Manchester Evening News, 16 March 2009 Back

527   The Academic Board advises the Vice-Chancellor on matters relating to the awarding of degrees. Back

528   Ev 540 [E-mail 18 March 2009] Back

529   Ev 540 [E-mail 20 March 2009] Back

530   An academic at Manchester Metropolitan University who submitted evidence to the inquiry, see Ev 545 [Susan Evans], and who subsequently made a criticism to us about Manchester Metropolitan University's behaviour, see para 295 ff. Back

531   Ev 540-41 [E-mail 23 March 2009] Back

532   Erskine May Parliamentary Practice, 23rd Edition, pp 78, 128 and 150 Back

533   Ev 541 [Letter 26 March 2009] Back

534   Ev 541 [Letter 3 April 2009] Back

535   Ev 542 [Letter 3 April 2009] Back

536   Ev 543 [Letter 17 April 2009] Back

537   Ev 543 [Letter 7 May 2009] Back

538   Ev 544 [Letter 20 May 2009] Back

539   Ev 544 [E-mail 21 May 2009] Back

540   Ev 544 [E-mail 21 May 2009] Back

541   First Special Report from the Constitutional Affairs Committee, Session 2003-04, Protection of a witness - privilege,
HC 210; and see also Fifth Report of Session from the Standards and Privileges Committee, Session 2003-04, Privilege: Protection of Witness, HC 447. 

542   Ev 541 [Letter 3 April 2009] Back

543   As above Back

544   Ev 542 [Letter 3 April 2009] Back

545   Ev 543 [Letter 7 May 2009] Back

546   Ev 544 [Letter 20 May 2009] Back

547   Ev 544 [E-mail 21 May 2009] Back

548   As above Back

549   "Lecturers reveal watered-down degrees; Academics are breaking ranks to expose a grim picture of higher education, says Jack Grimston", Sunday Times, 8 March 2009 Back

550   "Lecturers hit back at efforts to discredit grade-inflation claims", The Times Higher Education Supplement, 19 March 2009 Back

551   Ev 551 Back

552   "Lecturers reveal watered-down degrees; Academics are breaking ranks to expose a grim picture of higher education, says Jack Grimston", Sunday Times, 8 March 2009 Back

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