Whistleblowers: Doctor's 'discrimination' case is taken further

March 22, 2002

The Privy Council will be asked to investigate an Asian student's failed ten-year struggle to qualify as a doctor at Sheffield University.

Sushant Varma had to resit one exam four times because of procedural errors and performance problems, and he was wrongly accused of drug-induced mental illness during his extraordinary and ultimately doomed decade. He has complained to the university's visitor, claiming race discrimination, in a case that will go to the Privy Council.

Sheffield strongly denies discrimination and insists that he was given every opportunity to succeed but failed to meet the university's high standards. Dr Varma withdrew from Sheffield last summer, and has since qualified as a doctor under the only non-university medical examining body in the UK - the Society of Apothecaries - which has licensing powers under an 1815 Act of Parliament.

Dr Varma began his studies at Sheffield in 1992 and faced immediate problems with his performance. He had to repeat his first year and progressed slowly through successive years before his withdrawal. He claimed a combination of mitigating circumstances, procedural problems and discrimination.

He faced particular problems with a psychiatry exam. In October 1997, his tutor said he should not be allowed to sit the test a fourth time, pointing to an external examiner's letter that said that Dr Varma was "both academically and personally incapable of qualifying as a doctor". The external examiner said: "There is a very real possibility that he is developing a mental illness of some kind. Of course one is always worried about substance abuse in young people these days."

Dr Varma undertook a drugs test, which proved negative, and had himself assessed by a psychiatrist, who reported no mental problems.

Against his tutor's wishes, a student review committee allowed Dr Varma a final chance to sit the exam. It found that "there had been a breach of the university regulation on anonymous marking" when he first sat the test. It also said that statements about Dr Varma's mental health had "tainted the academic review and as such the student should be given the benefit of the doubt". The committee did not meet Dr Varma's demands to have his resit marked independently, but said it would instruct the department to avoid "as far as possible" tutors who had "a major involvement" in earlier assessments.

But Dr Varma failed the fourth attempt, and his progress on the course was again put to a review committee. As part of the review, in May 1998, one of his clinical supervisors, Rao Punukllu, raised doubts about the university's judgement. "I have no hesitation in saying that he has good knowledge of psychiatry, and I have graded his work as goodI There appears to be some unusual interest from some sectors about his performance... It appears to me that some people do not want him to carry on his medical studies. Is it due to his lack of knowledge in psychiatry or any other reason? I feel strongly that Sushant deserves to pass."

The review committee recommended that, because of a procedural error, Dr Varma should have his fail mark reviewed. He had been given incorrect information about the assessment procedures by the faculty office, and the exam board decided, reluctantly and against the explicit advice of the relevant external examiner, to allow him a pass.

He progressed with his course until he withdrew last summer after more problems, including a row over a student newspaper article in which Dr Varma used fake CVs in an attempt to expose alleged racism in the local hospital trust.

Dr Varma said: "The taxpayer has spent about £250,000 to train me as a doctor... I know I will never be able to work in medicine no matter what I do."

A university spokesman said: "Sushant Varma's progress has been the subject of extensive scrutiny through the university's formal procedures. We totally reject any suggestion that the university has discriminated against him.

"The university's regulations are that its students have to satisfy the formal examination requirements of the MBChB course in order to qualify for the award of a medical degree, and before the university recommends them to the General Medical Council for provisional registration as a doctor. Sushant Varma withdrew from the university without having passed the MBChB course."

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