Whistleblowers: Failed PhD student appeals to watchdog

May 28, 2004

A failed PhD candidate who rejected a £1,000 compensation offer after Keele University admitted that its mistakes had contributed to the collapse of his studies will be one of the first students to take his case to the new higher education complaints ombudsman.

Andrew Terry, 49, who is registered blind, accused Keele of poor supervision and procedural errors. Keele's visitor Baroness Amos is to refer Mr Terry's case to the watchdog, which was set up in March.

Like most other university visitors, the baroness, who is also Lord President of the Privy Council joined the ombudsman scheme voluntarily.

In an internal review of the case in 2001, Keele accepted that it had admitted Mr Terry to its psychology department, apparently in breach of its procedures, when he had no academic grounding in the discipline.

It also accepted that he had been subjected to "an atmosphere of alienation and hostility" from the outset, which had hampered his progress, and that he had been removed from the department in breach of university procedures.

But Keele did not uphold Mr Terry's complaint of poor supervision and offered him £1,000 as an ex gratia payment in full and final settlement of any claim that he may have against the university.

Mr Terry was formally withdrawn from Keele in May 2001 when procedures were again breached. His department failed to review upgrade documents that he had been asked to produce and did not, as required, give any formal warning before his withdrawal.

In a letter to Mr Terry, whose marriage broke down during the period of his studies, Hilary Hurd, chair of the research committee, said: "While your substantive complaint about poor supervision was not upheld, the committee... genuinely regrets that any inadequacies of process and procedures within the university and the department should have in some measure added to your difficulties and exacerbated your distress."

The research degrees committee ordered a reassessment of Mr Terry's work as a result of the original procedural errors, but the decision to withdraw him was reconfirmed.

Mr Terry filed a fresh, detailed complaint and, in January 2003, David Vincent, the deputy vice-chancellor, completed a new review.

He said he "found no grounds for disturbing the judgements made by the report of the research degrees committee".

Mr Terry told The Times Higher : "I haven't had any work since this dreadful mess began, and the very good chance of getting a PhD and thus employment has been denied me," he said.

"My research project is now terminated, and others have begun to take up the topic."

A spokesman for Keele said: "The university confirms that it has twice investigated complaints made by Mr Andrew Terry. On both occasions, the investigations were careful and exhaustive.

"The visitor has not informed the university that a case has been submitted by Mr Terry, and, therefore, we are unable to offer further comment."

The ancient visitor system will be abolished if the higher education bill, which is currently in the House of Lords, becomes law. At that point, the voluntary ombudsman will be given full legal status as the Office of the Independent Adjudicator.

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