A WHISTLEBLOWER suffered homophobic bullying from a private Oxford college after she confided she had become engaged to her girlfriend, an employment tribunal heard yesterday.

Carmel Conway said that she was sacked from her £24,500-a-year job as an academic co-ordinator at the Oxford Business College after sounding the alarm that bosses were embarking on a plan to recruit underage students which exposed child safeguarding issues.

Ms Conway is suing the private college, located above the Opium Den on George Street, for discrimination over sexual orientation, public interest disclosure, sexual discrimination and unfair dismissal.

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The tribunal panel, sitting in Reading, heard from Miss Conway, aged in her 30s, that she believed college bosses were unhappy about her sexuality when she and her girlfriend became engaged and did not want to be associated with gay people. They called her to a meeting where they tried to demote her, she said.

Then, she was called into a disciplinary meeting which ended with her being sacked, the tribunal was told.

Legally-trained Miss Conway claimed in her witness statement that college bosses had gone out of their way to get her to leave, logging 'every single mistake' she made.

She told the hearing how staff were pressured and harassed to admit underage international students into the Oxford Business College (OBC), in breach of child safeguarding laws.

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Ms Conway said she raised fears to her employers through emails and later blew the whistle to a DBS checks company that the college’s plans to recruit underage students would be in breach of safeguarding laws.

She said: “Initially I was highly praised for my excellent performance.

"I was never the subject of disciplinary action on any ground until I started to whistleblow, question the practises of the private college and made disclosures including a protected characteristic - I am gay - and had got engaged to my same sex partner.

“In the summer of 2016, in a conversation, I disclosed to the managing director, who had expressed an interest in the possibility of recruiting some underage students, that they would be in breach of safeguarding laws - as it was only allowed to recruit students who were over 18 years of age."

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Ms Conway contacted Personal Checks, a DBS checks company, before halting the checks after she believed the college had listened to her complaint, employment tribunal judge Andrew Gumbiti-Zimuto was told. However, the college had actually recruited underage students unbeknown to her and continued to ignore Ms Conway’s complaints that they were in breach of child protection laws, as international students under 18 years required special safeguarding measures.

Miss Conway claimed that in spite of her 'excellent' performance at work, she noticed a shift in attitude towards her following her engagement to her partner in September 2016. She was soon invited to a disciplinary meeting in all but name and pressured to accept a demotion.

Oxford Mail:

She said: “I feel that my engagement to my partner triggered senior management to subject my work to a massive amount of scrutiny, as well as overloading me with work and failing to take action to do anything about inadequate resources.

“The senior management team did not like an openly gay staff member as the college’s income relied heavily on Middle Eastern students. My colleague has told me that Titikisha Shah, the joint owner of the college, was heard making very derogatory remarks about gay people.”

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Her claims were later substantiated by a review from an external quality assessor, who told the company in audit that Miss Conway's workload was far too large and far too heavy.

Ms Conway said that as part of the college’s sustained effort to force her from her position, her employers ignored the audit and continued to pile work and pressure upon her.

“I was placed under immense pressure by the senior management team, who overloaded me with work, who continuously placed increasing duties and work on top of me, without taking any measures to alleviate their failure to provide adequate resources.

“The effect of this violation of my dignity and of the creation of an intimidating, hostile and degrading, humiliating and offensive environment for me was that I suffered stress,” she said.

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“In September 2016, after my engagement to my partner, I was directly discriminated against and asked by the managing director to accept a far more junior position.

“My initial six month probationary period ran from September 2015 to March 2016. During this time, I successfully completed the largest, most detailed quality assurance audit which spanned four years and included over 155 appendices, writing an audit report of approximately 80 pages which encompassed every department of the college - for which I received sterling results.”

Oxford Mail:

The judge heard that Miss Conway, who earned an annual salary of £24,500 working as an academic co-ordinator, later discovered a document on the college’s shared drive which was an advertisement for her own position.

She said it was created in December 2016, behind her back and the college requested she move to a zero hours contract the following month, which Miss Conway refused.

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The panel heard that on March 23, 2017, she was suddenly ushered into a disciplinary hearing by managing director Padmesh Gupta, with no formal warnings and told she may potentially lose her job.

She was subsequently dismissed in the meeting on March 27.

Wearing a navy jacket with pink polka dots, a green shirt and with short dark hair and earrings, she cut a tense but tenacious figure as she argued her case before her former employer.

She was also a resident warden at the college on George Street in Oxford, and lost both her home and her job following her dismissal.

She wrote in her statement: “I suffered immense stress due to losing my job, losing my home and the victimisation and harassment endured because of my whistleblowing and disclosures."

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Ms Conway claimed her attempts to appeal her dismissal were ignored as her former employer 'tried to run down the clock on the window in which she could appeal'.

“I defended the allegations against me in the disciplinary appeal hearing. However, I believe that due to my recent engagement to my girlfriend my employers have indirectly discriminated against me - and wanted to ‘manage me out’.

Oxford Mail:

“They logged every single error in my work and continued to overload me with work and responsibilities throughout this time, even after the external quality nominee stated that my workload was far too large. There was no performance procedure followed, there were no performance review meetings, no specific targets set and no specific deadlines."

The college is a private business and English language college, that claims to be the oldest business college in Oxford after it as founded in 1985 to serve over-18 education to students from across the world.

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It charges international students up to £34,500 for a two year long undergraduate business programme and offers a range of courses and qualifications for national and international students. At the time of Miss Conway’s dismissal it taught approximately 80 students.

The company is also seemingly keen to emphasise its international focus and appeal to a profitable overseas market.

It wrote on its website: “You’ll be meeting new people, many from the UK, but also from the EU, from Russia, China, the Middle East, Brazil, Japan – we’ve lost count of the nations large and small who’ve been represented at OBC!”

The college joint owner Titikisha Shah appeared with solicitor Sunit Joshi and claimed Miss Conway was dismissed because of unsatisfactory attention and attendance at work and they had instead suggested modifying her position to a “self-employed contractor basis."

She wrote in a witness statement: “I recall highlighting that the scale and frequency of her mistakes were truly disconcerting... it was very frustrating and disheartening that the claimant would produce such sloppy work and then expect management to step in and basically do her job for her.”

The tribunal hearing continues.