Stirling in racist slur charge

May 31, 1996

Wondimu Mekonnen has a single aim in life: to win back the Pounds 20,000 which the Ethiopian government paid Stirling University for his PhD course.

Mr Mekonnen, a 41-year-old accountancy lecturer at Addis Ababa University, has just lost his appeal against failing the PhD, but claims he should be reimbursed after battling against "institutional racism". He says he was charged full cost fees for the course but was not given adequate support. He alleges he was neglected and intimidated, and ended up sleeping rough for three months after his government scholarship ran out.

Stirling's principal, Andrew Miller, insists that the university is strongly against racial bias or harassment. But Stirling refuses to comment on Mr Mekonnen's situation or allegations. "The university has a policy of not discussing individual student cases, which it regards as personal and confidential," a spokesman said.

Both the Central Scotland Racial Equality Council and the National Union of Students Scotland are investigating Mr Mekonnen's case. "We have grave concerns about his allegations," says Aamer Anwar, CSREC's racial equality officer.

NUS Scotland has attacked Stirling's appeals procedure, which did not allow Mr Mekonnen to appear in person before the appeals board. It is now working with Stirling's students' association to draft a new procedure. "We do not believe the present procedure constitutes an appeals procedure," an NUS spokesman said. "It does not conform to natural justice."

Mr Mekonnen, who now faces deportation in July since he is no longer classed as a student, was sent to the West in 1988 to gain qualifications to run postgraduate courses in Addis Ababa. He chose Stirling because of its attractive publicity material, which stressed its high quality staff and picturesque campus. "It absolutely gave me a wrong impression. I was trapped."

When he arrived, he was told he must first take an MSc to reach the required standard for a doctorate, but claims the staff were unfriendly and arrogant. After a fellow student, a financial manager from Tanzania, failed the course, he decided to leave, but was persuaded to stay by his PhD supervisor, whom he found understanding. But after 18 months, he felt the supervisor was neglecting him, and eventually asked for a new supervisor in the third year of his PhD. He claims the school of management said there was no case for a change, and told him a fortnight later he was to be expelled following an unsatisfactory progress report.

In a successful appeal, Mr Mekonnen asked why he had been allowed to register for a third year if his performance was so poor, speculating that the university was perhaps waiting for the final instalment of his tuition fees. But he was distressed to find he still had the same supervisor, who was replaced only after he strenuously protested. But he claims this led to more friction because the new supervisor felt Mr Mekonnen had been imposed on him. He admits he avoided his supervisor as much as possible, but explained to the school of management that this was because he felt intimidated. He asked the school either to help him or leave him to work in his own way.

In 1993, his funding ran out, and he claims the school would not write him a reference to help him seek a grant from charitable organisations. He finally completed the draft of his thesis in 1994, but by this time he was homeless.

"I was working the whole night in the lab, and during the day I was sleeping under a tree. For a year, I was eating only once a day, bread and milk." He is now living on support from charities and friends.

He claims it took his supervisor four months to return the draft, and another two months for him to revise it. He was on the point of officially submitting the thesis when 40 computer diskettes containing his data were stolen from his university locker. Mr Mekonnen feared he himself was suspected of the thefts, but after police surveillance, a local man was arrested and convicted. Most of the diskettes were retrieved, but it took Mr Mekonnen until the end of last year to rework the thesis.

"I lived through all these agonies on my own. No one from the department or my supervisor asked me what had really happened," he says. "I finished this project on my own, not by choice but by desperation."

Mr Mekonnen believes he was not given a fair hearing during a five-hour oral exam, and that the appeals system has not taken his difficulties into account.

He said: "I want them to pay back all the money they grabbed from my poor country, money borrowed from the World Bank. If I get it back, I'll go to a university anywhere else in the world and defend my thesis where there are fair people."

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