A PhD candidate who was told that five years' work was "some of the dullest and [most] unimaginative" an examiner had seen is seeking almost £100,000 in compensation from Royal Holloway, University of London.
Adam Bernstein, a music teacher, has been advised by a barrister that he has a strong claim for breach of contract and negligence after he was told repeatedly by his supervisors at Royal Holloway that his work was progressing satisfactorily, only to have it ridiculed by an external examiner.
Martin Butler, the external examiner, reported in June 2002: "I find this music some of the dullest and (most) technically unimaginative I have come across at doctoral level and, perhaps more importantly, lacking in any real originality of style, approach or intent."
Mr Bernstein, 31, has asked the college to refer his complaints to the university's visitor, the quasi-judicial arbiter of complaints, Lord Irvine of Lairg.
Mr Bernstein joined Royal Holloway to study for an MPhil in musical composition, with the understanding that it would be upgraded to a PhD, in 1997. In every annual review until he submitted the work in 2001, he was told he was progressing in a "satisfactory" manner towards the PhD.
In 1998, John Rink, director of graduate studies, confirmed that Mr Bernstein would be transferred to a PhD. He said the decision had been made on the basis of "your very fine work in the department to date" and a recommendation from his supervisor.
In June 2001, days before Mr Bernstein submitted his thesis, Simon Holt, his supervisor, wrote: "This looks first rate to me. Well done!"
But Mr Bernstein, who had been awarded a studentship and had also taught undergraduates at the college, learnt in November 2001 that he had been awarded an MPhil and denied the opportunity to resubmit for a PhD. One examiner said the work was "closer to PhD entry level than to exit point" and another year of full-time work was required.
Mr Bernstein was granted an appeal against the decision in March 2002 and a re-examination of the work was ordered. The appellate committee found that "justice had not been seen to be done" as an examiner had failed to produce a preliminary report before Mr Bernstein's viva, and no explanation had been given as to why he was not allowed to re-submit for a PhD.
But after the re-examination in the summer of 2002, Mr Bernstein was again told his work was worth only an MPhil. Professor Butler's preliminary report contained the "dull and unimaginative" comments.
Mr Bernstein appealed for a second time, but he later withdrew the appeal and instead sought compensation. In June last year, his lawyers wrote to the college seeking a settlement.
"It is clear that Mr Bernsein's supervision was wholly inadequate," they wrote. "Four outside examiners were clear in their view that his work was not of, or even close to, PhD standard. Yet he was consistently told by his supervisors and advisers that his progress was more than satisfactory."
They argued that he could have earned £75,000 teaching in the five years he "wasted" studying because he already had a masters-level qualification from earlier study. They also calculated that if he had secured the PhD, he would have earned an extra £86,000 in his career.
The lawyers said he was also entitled to damages for "inconvenience or discomfort".
As the university has a visitor, Mr Bernstein was obliged to follow internal complaints procedures. But after agreeing to waive a requirement that complaints had to be pursued within three months, the college has now refused to hear his case, arguing that it is "seriously out of time".
A spokesman for the college said: "Mr Bernstein did make a complaint and considerable effort has been made to resolve this through college procedures. We have a strong culture of support for our postgraduate community. That Mr Bernstein feels he needs to take further action is disappointing for all involved."
THE EXAMINER'S VERDICT
"Overall, I find this music some of the dullest and technically unimaginative I have come across at doctoral level and, perhaps more importantly, lacking in any real originality of style, approach or intent.
This impression is compounded by the unforgivably turgid nature of the commentary - a witheringly boring sequence of analytic descriptions."