Biting the complaint bullet

Dissatisfaction among PhD students is growing but there is help for institutions willing to learn how to deal with it. Zoe Corbyn reports

June 4, 2009

A PhD graduate is seeking £200,000 in damages from his university because he believes poor supervision has put his career back two years.

Elsewhere, another PhD student is appealing against her institution's decision not to get a third examiner for her thesis, after the two that were appointed disagreed about whether to pass it.

Universities, it seems, are facing more complaints, appeals and lawsuits from PhD students than ever before. But what are the lessons they should be learning?

A seminar at the Missenden Centre, which is part of Bucks New University, later this month aims to address just this.

"Learning from Litigation: How to Save Money and Learn from PhD Complaints, Appeals and Lawsuits" is aimed at university administrators and academics to help institutions ensure that they are improving their "products" based on the complaints they receive.

Leading the course is Missenden founder and director John Wakeford. His argument is that universities are complacent when it comes to learning from students' problems.

"Universities on the whole do not learn from complaints," he said. "A student who makes a complaint is thought of as being a problem rather an opportunity to see why that complaint has arisen and where the university could improve its literature, supervisory training, examination procedures and so on."

The Office of the Independent Adjudicator (OIA) - which operates the independent student complaints service - has also noted a rise in student complaints. In its annual report, which was released last month, it reported a 20 per cent increase, with more of the complaints coming from postgraduates than from undergraduates.

"To learn from complaints is a matter of both good practice and avoiding going to law," said Rob Behrens, head of the OIA, adding that as postgraduates pose a higher risk of litigation, it makes sense for universities to pay particular attention to how they are supporting them.

Enormous investment

Clive Robertson, a partner at the law firm Seddons who specialises in representing students, said the number of people approaching him for legal advice had also increased.

The burden on universities, he said, was "not so much the big sums of money - although there have been some awards and there will be higher to come - it is more a question that when a student appeals internally and then carries that on, it takes huge amounts of internal administrative time of very senior people. Universities can nip it in the bud with proper procedures, supervision and hearing complaints early on," he added.

Dr Wakeford's starting point for the seminar is to make it clear that a PhD is an enormous investment, both for students and institutions. He estimates that the cost of a doctorate to a home student, or their backers, is rarely less than £100,000 - and for an international candidate it can be up to £300,000 - taking account of fees, living and study expenses, and lost income.

The fees that doctoral students pay cover only about half the costs that universities incur supporting them, and if unhappy students make their dissatisfaction widely known, it can be a serious blow to an institution's reputation. So what should universities be doing better?

According to Dr Wakeford, a wide range of lessons can be learnt and he uses a database of real-life case studies to get delegates thinking about how past issues have arisen and how the institutions involved could have responded more effectively.

These anonymised "PhD diaries" are available online at www.ucl.ac.uk/calt/phd-diaries/index.php.

He emphasises that universities should be conscientiously monitoring how the PhD process is going, rather than leaving students in the dark when their work is not up to standard.

"In practical terms you take any upgrade or review process really seriously," he said. "You don't just wave people through and say it will be all right in the end."

Another of his pointers is to make sure the process of obtaining a PhD, including the complaints and appeals procedure, is discussed with students from the start.

Supervisors need to make sure their students are aware that they cannot guarantee them a PhD and that the final award is up to the examiners.

It is also imperative that students understand that poor supervision is not grounds for appeal if they do not get their PhD - they need to have complained earlier - and that universities, the OIA and the courts will not consider appeals if their failure is on academic grounds.

Finally, Dr Wakeford advises universities to ensure their regulations look fair and reasonable to students and their backers.

"You really should look at your processes in the light of how outsiders will look at them," he said.

The workshop "Learning from Litigation" is next scheduled for 18-19 June.

For more information, visit www.missendencentre.co.uk and www.johnwakeford.com.

zoe.corbyn@tsleducation.com

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