Former PhD student hopes to fund legal action via web

Postgraduate seeks supporters to sue Exeter for breach of contract. Rebecca Attwood reports

January 29, 2009

A disaffected student has set up an internet campaign in a bid to raise £20,000 to sue the university where he failed to obtain his PhD.

Paul Jones, 26, who was a graduate teaching assistant at the University of Exeter Business School until last year, claims that unreasonable teaching demands were placed on him and that he received inadequate supervision after his tutor went on sabbatical and left him in charge of a specialist third-year undergraduate teaching module.

His website, student4justice.com, aims to reveal the "darker, less well documented world of academia". It is dedicated to students deemed to be "snotty and litigious" by their universities.

Last year, Mr Jones made an official complaint to the university. He went through all four stages of Exeter's grievance procedure, but his complaints were not upheld.

As "a gesture of goodwill", the university has offered to pay a year's tuition fees at another institution to fund the completion of Mr Jones' thesis. It also agreed to pay for the additional work he undertook delivering the module.

But Mr Jones, who says he has been left depressed by the experience and is now unemployed, hopes to raise funds through his website to bring legal action against Exeter for breach of contract.

"This is the only means of recourse I can pursue against the university that will allow me to seek damages, with the ultimate aim of allowing me to continue with my studies at an alternative university," the website claims.

The site, which names all the academics involved, includes extracts from emails and statements Mr Jones said he had uncovered using the Data Protection Act.

One email published on the site, written to colleagues by Steve Brown, head of the university's department of management, warned of "a few 'worried points' on Paul Jones' teaching for the first semester".

"As Paul is a GTA, it would be unwise to let him take entire charge of the module, especially a specialist third-year module, even though I understand it is 'in his area'," Professor Brown wrote.

"My fear is that students are becoming increasingly 'snotty' - litigious even - and I think we need to cover all the angles with this."

He asked Janet Borgerson, a reader in philosophy and management who was responsible for the module that Mr Jones was teaching, to "make sure that Paul is ready to deliver the material on this - he may need more support so that he has course and other material ready.

"I hope this isn't coming across as too paranoid but I just want to make sure that we don't have a bunch of students sending in letters and so on."

Mr Jones hopes his website will "highlight the plight of postgraduate students who are ... neglected or subject to mounting pressure to accept teaching duties traditionally performed by senior academic staff".

In a statement, Exeter said it had looked "in great detail" at Mr Jones' complaints but that none was upheld.

"The hearings did not accept that unreasonable teaching demands were placed on Mr Jones without due regard for the likely consequences for his ability to complete his PhD studies," the statement says.

It adds that Mr Jones had been "well qualified" to deliver the module, "given that he was at the time already an experienced graduate teaching assistant".

rebecca.attwood@tsleducation.com.

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