Pounds 100,000 damage claim

March 26, 1999

The Legal Aid board has given the go-ahead to an unprecedented bid for more than Pounds 100,000 in damages against Aston University. The board believes that thwarted research student Kevin Wilkinson has a meritorious case for substantial compensation from the university.

Mr Wilkinson moved his wife and two children from Dubai to begin a PhD at Aston University in 1997. But when he arrived in Birmingham, he found his agreed supervisor was not available.

What followed was a long and bitter battle, which ended with Aston vice-chancellor Michael Wright conceding in May last year: "I agree that your experience I was far from satisfactory and that the department of languages and European studies should have acted more expeditiously to put satisfactory alternative arrangements in place.

"I feel that I must offer you an apology on behalf of the university for the uncoordinated way in which we dealt with your problem. This clearly caused you and your family a great deal of internal distress."

The distress included moving two small children between four different schools in less than two years, the costs of leaving a well-paid teaching job in Dubai to relocate to Birmingham and of moving again to Norwich, where Mr Wilkinson is now studying. His partner has also left jobs. "Wasted time" in lost earnings has reached almost a year.

The university finally agreed to refund Mr Wilkinson's fees, which the vice-chancellor said "exemplified the fact that the department accepts that it did not perform well in your initial induction to the university and recognised that you were unhappy to continue here".

But as far as any further compensation was concerned, Mr Wilkinson was told firmly to go away.

In a statement to The THES, Aston University said: "The university went to considerable lengths to investigate Mr Wilkinson's case, and it concluded that the university has done all that it could reasonably have been expected to do."

This is not quite how the university put it to Mr Wilkinson. Professor Wright said: "I am unable to agree with your contention that the university is trying to duck its responsibilities and is, in some way, liable for further financial compensation. I fear that the university has little more to say which will satisfy your grievances and do not consider it to be in the interests of any parties to indulge in further, potentially defamatory correspondence.

"I suspect that you may be unhappy with this conclusion and, if this is indeed the case, may I respectfully suggest that you put the matter in the hands of your legal advisers, in respect of any further action you may wish to take. This will be the approach of the university."

Mr Wilkinson did indeed put the matter in the hands of his legal adviser. Education lawyer Jaswinder Gill this week confirmed that Mr Wilkinson had succeeded in his application for legal aid.

"Legal aid is now graded at a premium," said Mr Gill. "You have got to be able to show you have got very good chances of success." Mr Gill said that he would be asking the university to settle before issuing proceedings in the county court.

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