Soas, University of London has agreed to pay a former PhD student £20,000 in refunded tuition fees and compensation, after he challenged supervision failures using consumer rights legislation.
Vishal Vora forced the university to back down after the English sector ombudsman, the Office of the Independent Adjudicator, said that his claim to a fees refund was not justified.
After he started a county court claim, Soas told him that it did not intend to defend the matter.
“Essentially what I purchased [through tuition fees] was a library ticket and nothing else,” Dr Vora told Times Higher Education.
He successfully completed his PhD in Soas’ School of Law in September 2016 and is now a research fellow at Germany’s Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology, as well as a research associate at Soas.
Earlier this year, Soas offered £5,000 compensation and apologised to another PhD student after failing to provide the supervision needed to enable him to complete his degree.
Dr Vora – who is still pressing Soas to offer him an apology – said that he wanted other research degree students and graduates to be aware of their rights if they received inadequate supervision.
“I just don’t think that people go about taking the institution to task, because there’s a big power dynamic, first of all,” he continued. And many students who do manage to graduate, he added, feel that “no one was really available [to supervise me], but at the end of the day I did get my PhD or master’s…so now is there any point in pursuing anything?”
Dr Vora began at Soas in 2010 on an MPhil, then progressed to a PhD. His county court claim says that he had “four nominal supervisors during the first four years of research”. Towards the end of his research, “his nominal supervisor…was on sabbatical and did not read the claimant’s doctoral thesis prior to its submission”.
Dr Vora first complained to the university in March 2017. After mounting two investigations, Soas offered him £5,000 in compensation, but rejected his claim for a refund on his tuition fees.
Dr Vora said that he felt entitled to a refund on his fees after not receiving adequate supervision and submitting his thesis “blind”, with no member of staff having read it. “I had no one,” he continued. “That’s really not on.”
The claim says that there was “no support for [Dr Vora] during the entire period of his enrolment”.
Within the £20,000 total payment Soas has agreed to make, £12,460 covers refunded tuition fees and £5,000 is compensation, with the remainder covering Dr Vora’s costs in making his complaints.
In an internal email sent last month and seen by THE, Alfredo Saad Filho, the new head of Soas’ doctoral school, acknowledges that there is “considerable room for improvement” at the institution, mainly linked to “financial/funding limitations and failure of supervision”. Professor Saad Filho adds that he is “determined” to improve conditions for postgraduates.
Asked about Dr Vora’s case, a Soas spokeswoman said that the institution did “not generally comment on cases in relation to individual students” but that, “as a general matter, any agreements or sums paid would not amount to acceptance of liability on Soas’ behalf”.
She added that Soas’ PhD provision “is subject to quality assurance processes which ensure that the school provides strong and effective academic support to our students”.
Where students “have concerns about the supervision of their PhD, we would seek to resolve this speedily and effectively”, and there were “proper complaints mechanisms in place” beyond that, the spokeswoman said.