Tutors at Sheffield University closed ranks and refused to supervise a group of masters students after the university upheld a series of complaints about the quality of their course, it was claimed this week.
Students on an MA course said that they had been unable to gain access to their tutors while writing up their final dissertations. The move by their lecturers, which appears to be an unprecedented reaction to students asserting their right to complain, threatens to form the basis of a landmark contractual row.
Sheffield said this week that it could not comment on the case as it was yet to be fully resolved under the student complaint procedures. But in documents seen by The Times Higher , the university insists repeatedly that appropriate supervision arrangements were put in place.
About 40 students began the MA in translation studies in September last year - with overseas students paying £7,000 - but quickly encountered problems.
An official letter of complaint to the registrar, signed by 22 students last April, refers to "continued disappointment and frustration with the problems and setbacks we are still experiencing" after informal discussions with staff.
The students complain that the university failed to make clear in its prospectus that the course would be largely "theoretical", while students "would have preferred much more translation practice".
The students, who had lost their popular course director, Elke St John, complained of cancelled modules, timetabling problems, delays in receiving essay marks and feedback, and "inconsistencies" between modules, with variable workloads and teaching hours.
Their letter says that while Chinese students were able to take classes in translating in their mother tongue, Japanese students were denied this option.
They also write: "We remain dissatisfied with the quality of teaching" on the masters programme. They accuse teachers of relying too heavily on overhead projectors, wasting time by arriving late to lectures, and they complain of a "general lack of creativity".
In May, Marie Boam, the assistant registrar, concluded in a letter: "It was found that all issues raised in the... letters of complaint were upheld, with the exception of the complaint about teaching quality, which was not proven."
The university confirmed it had appointed a new course leader, Nigel Gotteri, and would appoint a new external examiner "to moderate all previously marked work". Additional classes would be provided to Japanese students.
But by mid-July, students remained dissatisfied. One wrote to David Walker, the dean of the arts faculty, saying: "Most students are currently engaged in writing dissertations but are experiencing difficulties in obtaining any help or supervision.
"Staff do not respond to e-mails, and in some cases have refused point-blank to see students, even when appointments to discuss work have been made."
He replied on July 19: "I have made it clear how much I regret the distressing situation that arose... The university has gone to exceptional lengths to investigate and resolve the problems and has taken great care to ensure that students will be provided with the best possible support to help them complete the programme."
He insisted: "The small number of students currently engaged in writing dissertations are in receipt of appropriate supervision."
The Times Higher has seen written testimonies from five students that confirm various problems with gaining access to tutors for help with their dissertations.
One Japanese student writes: "After we handed in the letter of complaint, the tutors... are refusing to teach us. [The] attitude is don't complain about teaching quality, just pay the tuition fee."
In a letter to one student on July 28, Ms Boam said: "In relation to dissertation arrangements, my understanding is that the appropriate provision is being put in place by the new course director."
Sheffield said the university would respond to issues raised by students "following a review of overall outcomes - including recommendations for award - from the programme." The exam board sits next month firstname.lastname@example.org