Whistleblowers: 'I blame government,' says £30,000 winner

August 2, 2002

The mature student who won £30,000 from Wolverhampton University to settle his allegations of poor teaching and inadequate facilities this week told The THES that he blamed the government for his unacceptable experience.

Mike Austen predicted a flood of similar lawsuits against universities as the government's failure to fully fund the expansion of higher education left disgruntled students crammed into lecture theatres without the resources and teaching support they had paid for.

Mr Austen, a 54-year-old former airline pilot who was studying law at Wolverhampton, spoke out this week nine months after an investigation by The THES first revealed the serious problems in his department, which formed the basis of his legal case, including erroneous exam papers and widespread student cheating.

Mr Austen told The THES : "I hold the government largely to blame in this matter. Its policy of inclusion is being implemented without regard to ensuring proper accommodation for the greater number of students and without regard to maintaining standards. It is my view that Wolverhampton University is a classic case of what must happen under current policy. I sincerely hope it is not happening to quite the same degree elsewhere."

His legal adviser, Jaswinder Gill, said: "This shows that students can take on and get compensation from universities failing to provide proper teaching at degree level. Cases such as this will have an enormous impact in the higher education field."

The THES reported in October that Mr Austen had submitted a catalogue of complaints to his head of department. The university accepted that several of his concerns were justified, confirming that errors had "crept through" into exam papers and that cheating was causing problems in the school of computing.

In one instance Mr Austen complained that during computing exams, students who had nothing to do with the exam ignored "keep out" signs and wandered through the computer laboratory, while others noisily used computer terminals and refused to leave when asked to do so by the invigilator.

The university accepted that a "certain amount of disruption" had been caused by students using the exam room as a thoroughfare, but said it was "a little difficult to explain" the alternative route to students. "We also accept that some students refused to relinquish machines in the classes," the university said. But they could not be forced to leave because "there have been a number of cases of violent and abusive behaviour directed at lecturing staff who insist on students vacating the room".

Mr Austen had also alleged in his breach of contract claim at Walsall County Court that he was told that certain modules were available when they were not; that up to 60 students had to cram into seminar rooms that sat only 15 students and many failed to get in; that lecturers regularly failed to turn up; that the library was badly understocked; that the university did not practise anonymous marking; and that some lecturers had given selected students highly detailed and personalised advice on how to complete assignments, contrary to the school's policy.

He also said that he had not been made properly aware of the complaints procedures, that his complaints were not taken seriously and that his allegations were circulated to named tutors who would have responsibility for assessing his work. In one case Mr Austen was told by law school senior programme manager Jim Clevenger: "I do not believe the situations you are concerned about require an answer."

Mr Gill, who provided Mr Austen with legal advice towards the end of his litigation, said: "An offer (to settle) was made for £10,000, but it was put that nothing less than £30,000 would be accepted. The defendants later promptly made a payment into court for the sum of £30,000, which was accepted."

A spokesman for the university said: "While the University of Wolverhampton acknowledges that it has reached an out-of-court settlement with Mr Austen, it has done so with no admission of liability. Indeed, having carried out an appropriate and thorough investigation, the university is satisfied with the integrity of its processes. In reaching this settlement the university has had cause to consider most carefully the costs of settlement in comparison to the costs of defending this particular case."

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