Whistleblowers: Exeter rebuked over ill-treated PhD student

July 12, 2002

The Lord Chancellor has rebuked the University of Exeter for a series of serious failings in its treatment of a PhD student.

In ruling on a postgraduate's complaint on behalf of the Queen, who is Exeter's visitor, Lord Irvine of Lairg found that the university:

  • Did not provide PhD student Dennis Foster with "an adequate level of support and supervision"
  • Did not address properly his complaints about his supervision and did not "apply fairly and appropriately" its internal procedures
  • Did not follow its appeal procedures fairly - and breached natural justice - when it dismissed Dr Foster's appeal against failing his PhD
  • Did not advise Dr Foster that he had the ultimate right to appeal to the Queen and Lord Chancellor as visitor, leading him into unnecessary and fruitless county court action.

Dr Foster - who after failing to gain his PhD at Exeter obtained it subsequently at another university - enrolled as a part-time postgraduate at Exeter's School of Business and Economics in October 1997. He submitted his PhD thesis in October 1999. Examiners recommended that no degree be awarded.

His appeal against the decision was dismissed, but Lord Irvine, in a formal determination delivered earlier this summer, has upheld Dr Foster's numerous complaints.

Lord Irvine said Dr Foster was not given proper supervision. Dr Foster, a part-time student who lived about 75 miles away from campus, was promised remote access to the university's database but he did not get it.

He had very few face-to-face meetings with supervisors, and there was no real clarity about how much formal supervision he could expect. Lord Irvine said there was a "lack of knowledge by the university and its staff of some of the more basic details of Dr Foster's status" as a postgraduate student.

Lord Irvine also agreed that the university did not follow its rules in dealing with Dr Foster's complaints about poor supervision. Dr Foster first complained in writing about his supervision in November 1998, a year after he enrolled. Lord Irvine said: "It does not appear that he received a reply."

Subsequent written complaints were acknowledged in writing, and the university claimed that they had been dealt with. Lord Irvine said: "Dr Foster listed a number of complaints that were never addressed by the university."

Other problems arose in the handling of two formal appeals by Dr Foster against his apparent academic failure.

Lord Irvine said that the university collected evidence in breach of the written procedures and made judgements based on evidence that Dr Foster had not been given an opportunity to question.

He said: "There are a number of indications that the university may have been in breach of its regulations and the rules of natural justice."

Lord Irvine also criticised the university for informing Dr Foster that he had exhausted all avenues of appeal when the visitor was available to hear an appeal.

He said: "Universities owe a duty of care to give accurate guidance to students to ensure that they are aware of their rights to appeal."

Dr Foster, who was unaware of the visitor's jurisdiction, first pursued the university in the county court for breach of contract and negligence. The district judge struck out the claim because the dispute was within the exclusive jurisdiction of the visitor and ordered Dr Foster to pay the university's costs.

A spokesman for Exeter offered the university's apologies to Dr Foster and said it would waive the outstanding court costs.

He said: "Since Dr Foster joined the university in 1997, there has been a complete redevelopment of postgraduate policies and practices at Exeter. Central to this is the creation of the Exeter Graduate School, which has already tackled the issues raised by Dr Foster's case.

"New codes of practice or procedures have been developed, covering areas including supervision of research students, approval of remote studies, appointment of research degree supervisors and maximum and minimum periods of study."

The university also now makes more explicit the ultimate right of appeal to the visitor.

Want to blow the whistle?
Contact Phil Baty on 020 7782 3298
or email him at phil.baty@thes.co.uk

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