A whistleblower has won an employment tribunal case against Oxford Saïd Business School (SBS), her former employer, after she claimed it misled the government over a £1m project.
SBS, the business school of the University of Oxford, yesterday lost a case lodged by Dr Elaine Heslop, its former director of custom executive education.
Dr Heslop, who joined SBS in 2016, raised concerns about the school’s handling of government contracts in 2018. After revealing her allegations, SBS dismissed her from her post in September 2018. The tribunal found she had been unfairly dismissed.
Heslop told the tribunal she had concerns SBS was attempting to breach EU procurement rules by offering the Cabinet Office a 20% discount, interpreted as a bribe, to retain a £22m contract and avoid a public procurement process. The contract was for a programme designed to equip those working in government with the skills needed to drive complex projects.
She also raised concerns that SBS had “materially mislead” the Cabinet Office by charging it for a ‘major project leadership academy’ that was simply “cut and pasted” from a course already available to students. The business school charged about £934,000 for developing the programme, the tribunal was told.
According to the law firm representing Dr Heslop in her tribunal, the issue only came to light when the government tried to licence the programme to the Australian government. In papers submitted to the employment tribunal, lawyers for Ms Heslop said that she raised her concerns with Andrew White, an associate dean at the business school.
Ms Heslop explained to the tribunal that she told Mr White that she “felt sick” when she realised the materials were “cut and pasted” from the Masters in Major Project Management, available at the school.
“It looked like a copy and paste job, despite the proposal and tender documents having stated that the [school] would ‘amend and adapt’ [the existing module’s] design and content,” she said.
“The Cabinet Office had spent so much on development fees they would have a reasonable expectation that tailored written materials did exist,” she added.
The business school, Mr White and the university denied any wrongdoing and the claim of unfair dismissal. Lawyers for the plaintiff said it expected the damages “to be very substantial”.
Richard Woodman, a partner in the employment team at law firm Royds Withy King, acting for Dr Elaine Heslop, said: “Dr Heslop is very pleased to have been vindicated by this judgment. She always believed that she was sacked for speaking the truth to power and is delighted that Employment Judge Anstis and his colleagues agreed.
“It has been a long haul for her against much better-resourced opposition and she hopes that Oxford Saïd Business School will promptly accept the financial consequences of the judgment so that she can move on with life.”
In a statement, Saïd Business School said: “We are reviewing the tribunal’s findings. Our School aspires to uphold the highest standards of teaching, learning and governance.
“We regularly reassess the training and ongoing support we provide to managers in handling sensitive conversations with members of their team.
“We refute any allegation that the Cabinet Office was misled about the design and content of this bespoke programme. We are proud to continue to work with the Cabinet Office, and of the superb work of our faculty and staff in delivering world-class executive education to all our clients.
“The Major Projects Leadership Academy has run successfully since 2012. Throughout, the Business School has worked closely with the Cabinet Office to develop and continually refine a robust and impactful programme, drawing on our expertise in this area, including other specialised programmes we run such as the School’s Masters in Major Programme Management.”