Twenty-nine former students of Oxford Brookes University have rejected ex gratia payments of up to £5,000 each to drop their compensation claim after the university repeatedly failed to gain professional accreditation for their osteopathy degree course.
The THES reported last month that 37 students who enrolled on courses in 1998 and 1999 had been offered the "without an admission of liability" payments after they were forced to undertake up to 17 months' study on top of their degree courses to qualify as professional practitioners. It is understood that only eight students have taken up the university's offer.
The remaining students last week wrote to the university rejecting the offer of a final settlement of their grievances and demanding an independent review of their complaint.
The students insist the course failed to deliver the vocational education leading to the professional practice that they expected. "The students have suffered the damage and disappointment of delayed qualification and the stresses of an extra, franchised course," they say in their letter.
Their demand for a review of their complaint came as The THES uncovered new documents this week that revealed the full extent of the problems that caused the repeated failure to gain accreditation.
All universities offering osteopathy qualifications had to obtain formal accreditation by the General Osteopathy Council (GOsC) by 2000 if they wanted the courses to lead to professional status. But after an inspection of the Oxford Brookes courses in May that year, the GOsC filed a report that forced the directors of Oxford Brookes' School of Osteopathy to admitit was "difficult to find a positive thing in" the entire document.
The GOsC said that the course was not meeting its minimum requirements in almost every aspect. It found that clinical and classroom teaching material was "lacking in depth, rigour and sufficiency". The university was applying an "inappropriate standard of proficiency" that "seriously compromises the ability of students to acquire and use the concepts and principles of osteopathy".
Even students' communication skills were poor: "Of particular concern is the variable standards of communications between students and patients during clinical encounters," the report says. "Some students do not recognise or respond to immediate patient needs."
A number of documents that have emerged are crucial to the students' claim that they were kept in the dark about the seriousness of the failings. Just before the university received the damning GOsC report, course director Jonathan Poston told the students: "I feel that the inspection weekend went as well as we could have wished... I have not been made aware from the GOsC of any major problems at this stage."
In October, new course director Ian Swash said in a paper for staff that they had to consider how to "hang on to the three years of unregistrable students". Minutes of a board meeting in the same month noted: "The course team were trying very hard to get rid of panic and spread a feeling of (the school) succeeding."
In March 2001, Dr Swash told staff in a confidential letter: "It is of course important that we maintain student morale through the next few months of negotiation with GOsC and remain positive in regard to the outcome."
But hopes that the university would reapply in 2001 were dashed after the GOsC made it clear that there was "more that needed to be done". Plans to reapply again in 2002 were also scuppered as "the university concluded that it would still not be in a position to be confident (of gaining accreditation)".
The reapplication was eventually made in March this year, and finally looks destined for success. The GOsC has made a recommendation to the Privy Council, which is responsible for conferring recognised status on courses, that the Oxford Brookes course should now be accredited.
A spokesman for Oxford Brookes, which has already rejected the students'
complaints at the first formal stage and insists they were never promised an accredited course, said: "At this stage of the proceedings we are unable to comment on this issue. Once the matter is finalised between all parties we may be able to comment further."