Claim for unfair dismissal fails

Appeal tribunal rejects case of scholar who quit after exam marks were changed. Melanie Newman writes

May 21, 2009

A professor who resigned after managers overruled his marking was not unfairly dismissed, the Employment Appeal Tribunal has ruled.

Paul Buckland, professor of archaeology at the University of Bournemouth, failed 14 out of 16 candidates who resat an examination in 2006. His marks were approved by Bournemouth's examination board, but the papers were later revisited and the number of failures reduced. Brian Astin, the chair of the board of examiners, approved the higher marks without consulting Professor Buckland.

An internal investigation found that the professor should have been consulted about the decision to change the marks.

After the investigation, Timothy Darvill, the head of department, emailed Professor Buckland, saying that he had "won the war that will end all wars". But the professor resigned shortly afterwards and made a constructive dismissal claim.

An initial employment tribunal found that the professor had not been treated by Bournemouth in the manner he was entitled to expect.

"The university had been guilty of a fundamental breach of contract, and in our view it needed to do something very clear to rectify that breach, if indeed it were possible to do that," it said. It found that he had been unfairly dismissed.

But the appeal tribunal found that the university's investigating committee had upheld Professor Buckland's complaints.

It said: "The university's breach was remedied prior to the resignation. The claimant was not dismissed and hence his complaint of unfair dismissal fails and is dismissed."

A Quality Assurance Agency audit report on Bournemouth, published on 1 May, concludes that it has "appropriate procedures and evaluative arrangements in place for the framing and implementation of its assessment policies and rules".

Geoffrey Alderman, professor of politics and history at the University of Buckingham, who has campaigned against falling standards in higher education, said that despite the outcome, the facts of the case were cause for concern.

He said the case established that Bournemouth's official view was that students should be able to pass a course merely on the basis of lecture notes, which was "perverse".

A university spokesman said: "The set of marks proposed by Professor Buckland had not been supported by three external examiners, and this was accepted by the relevant examination board. The issue over quality and standards relating to the assessment was therefore closed."

He said the QAA report showed that there was no problem with standards at Bournemouth.

Professor Buckland is seeking leave to appeal.

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