September 11, 2008

‘I Had to Do Too Much Teaching’

By Liz Lightfoot

COVER STORY Paul Jones is among a growing number of disaffected postgraduates considering suing their universities. Are PhD students neglected by their supervisors? By Liz Lightfoot

If things had gone according to plan, Paul Jones would be seeking work as a university lecturer. Instead, he is unemployed and trying to pursue a legal action against the university where he failed to complete his PhD.

The 26-year-old claims that his research is in ruins because the School of Business and Economics at the University of Exeter put unreasonable demands on him as a graduate teaching assistant when it placed him in sole charge of a module for final-year students. He claims that the supervision for his PhD was inadequate during the same period and that when he raised his fears of falling behind with his thesis, he was bullied by a lecturer who threatened him over a reference.

The university says that it disputes his version of events and does not accept his complaint, one of an increasing number being pursued by students in the UK. Though it is rare for cases to hit the headlines - most are either dropped or settled out of court with confidentiality clauses - lawyers say that they are most likely to be hired by students on postgraduate courses rather than students on undergraduate degrees, because the postgrads are older and have more to lose.

"It is disturbing to note the extraordinary number of calls we have received from aggrieved students in recent years," says Mike Charles, a partner at Sinclairs, the education law firm that is assisting Jones. "The number is certainly increasing; perhaps unsurprisingly, in view of the tuition-fee increases that result in students having greater inclination to turn to the law when they feel let down."

While pursuing his case through the internal procedures, Jones says that he discovered an email from a senior academic at Exeter warning of the risk of putting a teaching assistant in charge of a final-year undergraduate module at a time when students were becoming "increasingly snotty and litigious".

The Office of the Independent Adjudicator for Higher Education, which handles complaints against universities, confirms the trend of increasing postgraduate dissatisfaction. It draws attention in its latest annual report to the proportionately higher number of complaints from graduate students, saying they represent 37 per cent of the workload.

The increase in course fees has upped the ante for students who are more prepared to seek to enforce their rights, according to Salima Mawji of Match solicitors. "As our society becomes much more meritocratic, a degree becomes more important than ever and students are becoming more litigious to ensure they get what they set out to achieve," she says.

The cases that reach lawyers are the tip of the iceberg, says Clive Robertson, the head of the education law unit at Seddons solicitors. Left to their own devices, students can spend weeks and even months compiling lengthy dossiers of evidence and don't always realise that the courts will not get involved in questions of academic judgement, he says.

A student who fails a PhD will usually allege one of three grounds: mistake; extenuating circumstances, such as a family bereavement at the time of the viva; and bias or prejudice. The first two are rare, he says, and most cases allege that academics have shown bias or prejudice in their dealings with the student.

"You might think it hard to prove but I've seen some extraordinary comments made to PhD students," says Robertson. "One examiner commented in a viva that the work wasn't as good as something that could have come from someone with a full-time job at Tesco. I see students working for three or five years in a total vacuum with little or no contact with supervisors and then, when they finally submit their thesis, they are told it doesn't meet the requirements. It happens and it shouldn't happen."

The complaints that are most likely to succeed are those where the student goes on to finish their PhD at another institution and can therefore argue realistically that the supervision at the first university was the cause of the initial failure, says Oliver Hyams, a barrister at Devereux Chambers and chairman of the Education Law Association.

The biggest stumbling block for litigants is being unable to prove inadequate supervision. "If you claim that you suffered loss as a result of negligence on the part of the university then, essentially, you are claiming that the academic involved was professionally negligent and you will have to find another lecturer to back up your claim as an expert witness," he says.

Recent cases have suggested that universities are likely to settle the most viable claims rather than run the risk of larger losses and the publicity of a court case. But they are likely to defend weaker claims to make a stand. Because settlements almost always include a confidentiality clause, that gives the impression that student claims are less successful than they are in practice, he says.

Jones, who has completed three stages of the university's four- stage internal-complaints procedure, says that the university breached its contract to give him continuity of supervision and failed to provide the teaching support to which he was entitled during the same period. He is also alleging that he was subject to bullying and threatening behaviour and that the early stage of his internal complaint was handled unfairly.

He is seeking the funds to continue his research at another university, saying that his relationship with his supervisor has broken down irretrievably. He also wants an apology and an unbiased reference.

Jones's studies at Exeter began in 2003 when he enrolled on a Masters course after graduating from Aberystwyth University with a 2:1 in marketing and law. In January 2004, he was appointed as a graduate teaching assistant and transferred from the Masters course to pursue a PhD thesis on the political economy of dystopian literature. In return for teaching part-time under the supervision of the lecturers, his fees were waived and he received an annual stipend of 9,000 for two years, falling to 5,000 in the third.

He claims his problems began in June 2007, when Dr Janet Borgerson, the lecturer he assisted, announced that she was going on sabbatical leave during the autumn term with Professor Jonathan Schroeder, her partner and Jones's supervisor. "She told me I was to take over the whole of her module on consumer research," says Jones. "I was worried because it wasn't my area of specialism. I raised my concerns within the department about the workload in my write-up year and being in sole charge of a final-year module."

Internal emails obtained by Jones under the Data Protection Act show that Professor Steve Brown, head of the Department of Management in the school, wrote to Dr Borgerson in July 2007 telling her that it would be unwise to let a graduate teaching assistant take charge of the module, "especially a specialist third- year module". He added: "Students are becoming increasingly 'snotty' - litigious, even - and I think we need to cover all the angles with this." He suggested that two other lecturers be asked to help teach it.

He added: "I hope this isn't coming across as too paranoid, but I want to make sure that we don't have students sending in letters, and so on."

Professor Borgerson replied in an email: "I cannot in good faith ask a colleague to take on extra work simply because I have a sabbatical." She said of Jones: "He seems on track. The lectures he's done for my courses have been excellent, so on that point, he'll be fine."

Jones claims that he had to devote time in the summer vacation that he had intended to spend on his thesis preparing to teach the module. When Professor Borgerson returned in January this year, Jones asked her to take over the marking of individual assignments, saying he was behind with his thesis. She complained to Professor Schroeder. "She was very angry and asked me in front of my supervisor if I understood that they were the people who wrote letters of recommendation," says Jones. Dr Borgerson has admitted that she raised the issue of the writing of references but said she did not intend to convey a threat.

A spokesman for the university said: "It is unusual for graduate teaching assistants to deliver a full course module in the Business School and this would only be contemplated where they displayed a very high level of ability. In Mr Jones's case, he had been involved in delivering aspects of this module for the two previous years."

A hearing chaired by the deputy vice-chancellor, Professor Neil Armstrong, did not accept that unreasonable teaching demands were placed on the student. "It was not unreasonable for a graduate teaching assistant to be asked to teach an entire module and it was not in breach of the university's code of practice," said Professor Armstrong.

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