Student seeks to challenge OIA ruling

August 12, 2005

The student complaints ombudsman could face an unprecedented legal challenge after a postgraduate student, who was awarded £750 for mistreatment by Westminster University, rejected the compensation and vowed to fight for full vindication.

Lydie Banot, a former Westminster PhD student, was this week looking for a lawyer to help her apply for a judicial review to overturn part of the ombudsman's ruling on her case.

The ombudsman, officially known as the Office for the Independent Adjudicator for Higher Education, only partially upheld her complaint against Westminster.

The OIA found that the university had provided poor-quality supervision for Ms Banot's work and had failed to deal with her complaints in a reasonable amount of time.

But Ms Banot claims that the OIA failed to properly address the key element of her complaint - that the university breached its contractual obligations to her when it demanded that she change the research methodology that had formed the basis of her admission to the PhD programme and that won her a scholarship.

"They have offered £750 compensation, which I cannot accept since I do not accept their findings," Ms Banot said. "I now need to find a lawyer."

The OIA, established as a legal entity in January, has had no known legal challenges to its decisions. It replaced the ancient visitor system in old universities, which had exclusive jurisdiction over student complaints and was immune to legal challenge. It was supposed to replace expensive court action, but its decisions are subject to legal challenge.

Ms Banot joined Westminster's Centre for Urban and Regional Governance on a research studentship for a PhD in September 2003, but disagreements between Ms Banot and her supervisors about the nature and conduct of her research topic quickly emerged.

She was offered the scholarship on the basis of a research proposal and methodology that she believed represented a form of contract.

Ms Banot objected when her supervisors urged her to change the methodology. The differences led to a breakdown in relations and the withdrawal of her scholarship. She accused the supervisors of giving her a place at the university even though they did not understand her research plans.

Ruth Deech, the chief adjudicator, said in her adjudication: "I find that Ms Banot did make her supervisors aware of her intended methodological approach."

Dame Ruth said that Tassilo Herschel, Ms Banot's supervisor, "should have realised that she (Ms Banot) was attempting to fix this approach before registering for a PhD and that it should have been made clearer to her that projects of this nature evolve over time and cannot be set in stone from the outset".

But Dame Ruth said the university had "made clear" to Ms Banot before it accepted her proposals that there was a need to "reconcile her research interests with those of the centre".

The OIA said that the "questions of methodology are matters of academic judgment", which it is prevented, by law, from ruling on.

Dame Ruth ruled that as it was common practice in universities for theses proposals to be modified on the advice of supervisors, and as Ms Banot appeared to have ignored this advice, it was "reasonable" for the university to withdraw her scholarship.

Dame Ruth did uphold Ms Banot's complaint that her supervisors were not properly qualified to supervise her work.

The university had accepted that the "two lead supervisors did not have experience of supervision through to successful completion of a PhD".

A third supervisor "who did have the required experience" had been on sick leave throughout the entire academic year in question and had not been replaced.

Dame Ruth said: "I find that the supervision arrangements for Ms Banot were unsatisfactory, in that they breached the university's own regulations."

In a statement this week, Dame Ruth said: "The issue referred to by Ms Banot is one of academic judgment and not within our remit (Higher Education Act 2004 section 12 (2))."

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