Tribunal backs professor's stand

Academic vindicated over decision to fail 'knuckle-draggingly thick' students. Phil Baty reports

August 21, 2008

A professor who resigned in protest after his university overruled his decision to fail more than a dozen of his students has won an Employment Tribunal case for unfair dismissal.

Times Higher Education reported exclusively in March 2007 that Paul Buckland, professor of archaeology at Bournemouth University, had judged that 14 BSc students should fail a resit exam.

His marks were confirmed by a second marker and were officially approved by the examination board. But after the board had signed off his marks, the papers were re-marked and the number of fails dropped to three.

Last week, the Southampton tribunal ruled that Professor Buckland "had been put in an impossible position ... in which his views and his position as a senior academic were disregarded in a manner that he was entitled to regard as insulting".

This represented a "fundamental breach" of his contract.

After the August resits, 14 out of 16 students failed Professor Buckland's "Reconstruction of environment and economy" course in 2006, the tribunal said.

The exam board was chaired by Brian Astin, dean of the School of Conservation Sciences, who is also now acting pro vice-chancellor responsible for the university's "academic performance". During the meeting, Professor Buckland described the failing students as "thick, knuckle-draggingly thick" and the board "checked and confirmed" the fail marks.

But after the meeting, Miles Russell, programme leader for the archaeology BSc, "intermeddled (sic) in the exam process" when he had "no business" doing so and remarked the papers. He raised concerns with Dr Astin that the marks were harsh and that there was a lack of comments from the second marker, so a third marker was asked to look at the work.

The judgment of the new marker was "broadly in line" with Professor Buckland's, and he increased marks by "between 2 and 6 per cent overall", the tribunal said. But the effect was to push some students "from a clear fail into ... the compensatable range where students can be awarded a pass".

The new marks were approved by Dr Astin "by chairman's action".

Professor Buckland "made the strongest possible complaint" that Dr Astin's action "represented an insult to his integrity", the tribunal said. "We are in no doubt that (his) sense of grievance was fully justified."

"We find that it was an act calculated to destroy the relationship of trust and confidence between (Professor Buckland) and the university and was a repudiatory breach of contract."

A Bournemouth spokesperson said the university was "very disappointed with the outcome" and was studying the detailed judgment before commenting further.

He said that a review of the scripts by three independent external examiners had shown "all students marked as passing the examination should have those passes confirmed". He added: "We are absolutely committed to maintaining the high standards of our academic programmes. There is nothing in the judgment that would support a contrary view."

phil.baty@tsleducation.com.

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