Destigmatising Whistleblowing: the Freedom to Speak Up Guardians of Leeds Med School

“I am a member of staff who has been a student at this university and I wish this kind of role existed when I was starting off,” medical education tutor Robina Mir tells me. “I wish I had somewhere safe where I could go and talk to somebody.”

She, along with Carly Miller, is one of two Freedom to Speak Up Guardians appointed to the Faculty of Medicine and Health in March this year. The newly-created role seeks to encourage students studying in the faculty to speak up about any issue, big or small, including any form of discrimination (such as racism, sexual harassment), bullying or anything that could be improved.

“We are not here to judge, we are not here to take sides. We need to have that neutral space where we are listening to that individual who comes to us in order to provide them with the opportunity to get it off their chest,” she explains. “I often say to my students that we all need places where we are safe to vent and safe to explore our thinking; this is a non-judgemental space with someone you trust who can help you make an informed decision about what to do next.”

Although the faculty may be the first university department in the country to appoint Guardians especially for students, the role itself has a much deeper history. Professor Louise Bryant, researcher of Psychological and Social Medicine and Associate Dean in the School of Medicine for Equality, Diversity and Inclusion explains: 

“[The role] mirrors something that already exists in the NHS. It recognises that if there is bullying or racism going on or other incidents and staff can’t speak up about that then that puts patients at risk… We feel that the role is really helpful as we are not just educating students for a degree but we are training professionals who are going to work in the NHS. they need to become familiar with Freedom to Speak Up Guardians.”

Bryant also tells me that the change has also come about as a result of the Medical School signing up to the British Medical Association charter to prevent and address racial harassment. Yet, considering all departments at the university have procedures for dealing with complaints and feedback, what prompted the Faculty of Medicine and Health to look to the NHS for inspiration? 

“Since 2015 we have run student surveys in the school of medicine asking for their perception of equality initially around gender equality but last year we asked about experiences of racial equality as well,” says Bryant. “We asked if they had experienced microaggressions and more serious things like race hate crime and sexual assault. We were concerned by the results of our survey how few of our students would report such an event happening to them whether it was university related or not. Students were really afraid to speak up about it because they were afraid that it would have a detriment to themselves perhaps in terms of their career and what would happen to them in their peer groups if they spoke up about a fellow student. We were really concerned about that and the impact that hiding these incidents then has on people’s ability to do well in their studies.”

However, the scheme isn’t solely focused on reporting bad behaviour but also aims to influence change to improve student experience in a broader sense. Mir asserts that the role is “also about asking what we need to change about the culture of the environment which students are working and studying in. It might be something to do with tripping over a piece of lino or feeling that they are not catered for in the canteen for some reason with those vegan options or those halal options.”

Not only are the Guardians able to network with every piece of the University jigsaw – from the secretariat, to campus security, to the chaplaincy – but they are also able to deal with concerns that arise outside of the faculty like on clinical placements or during intercalation. 

It’s the job of the Guardians to also keep students informed with the process of complaints. Mir says: “One of the criticisms students have had in the past before our role existed is that they would raise a concern that they then wouldn’t get any feedback on. As a Guardian I would keep in touch with them to say: how are you feeling about the way things are going at the moment, is there anything outstanding or anything that you’ve not been able to get feedback on? Then I’d be in a position to then contact the relevant parties and say what’s the update on this.”

Warm, affable and an attentive listener throughout our conversation, Robina Mir seems like an ideal candidate for the role of a Freedom to Speak Up Guardian. What’s more, she is unwavering in stating the importance of this new scheme. 

“I’ve had students say to me well before this job, when I was a tutor: ‘This happened to me. I don’t know if this was racism. I don’t know if this was bullying. I don’t know what it was but it wasn’t right and I don’t know who to talk to about it. It’s those kind of niggling things when you are not sure what to do about it when it’s worth coming to chat to us. We would be able to help you pick it apart to work out what key things need to be addressed there. Whatever you may assume about us, test us out! I am here to listen to you in an impartial way and think about how I can empower you to make decisions so you get the best outcomes for you.”