Whistleblowers: Student wins £34K payout

June 18, 2004

A failed PhD student who won what is believed to be the largest financial settlement in the UK after a four-year battle with Lancaster University said this week that he had faced an "ordeal of avoidance, denial and distortion".

The student, who has asked The Times Higher to use only his surname, was last year given £34,000 without an admission of liability by Lancaster after the collapse of his promising PhD studies in 1999.

Mr Edmunds said: "When this began in 1999, all I wanted, and all I tried to get for six months, was an honest explanation as to what had gone wrong, and a simple apology for that.

"That, then, would have been enough. Instead, I got distortion, denial and avoidance, with my experience being selectively rewritten."

Mr Edmunds began his PhD in Lancaster's religious studies department in 1995, having obtained a masters with distinction and, earlier, a first-class degree in the same department.

The 1999 annual appraisal of his work concluded that he had suffered from the "absence of a supervisor" and had not received "the kind of rigorous scrutiny he should have". It concluded that his "thesis is much too broad, too speculative".

Mr Edmunds complained and, in a move later acknowledged by Richard Roberts, professor of religious studies, as "a most unfortunate error", Mr Edmunds received two versions of a departmental report into his complaints.

The early draft, by Professor Roberts and head of department Deborah Sawyer, said that the real issue was "Mr Edmunds' gradual shift from the agreed, registered and funded project to the earlier, hopelessly overambitious and inappropriate goal".

It said the shift "was not, for whatever reasons, detected, challenged and corrected in the course of the 1996 annual panel review" and that no one challenged him over a change to the title of his work. But all of this was removed from the final, official version.

The final report also included a significant factual error - noting that Mr Edmunds had registered in 1994 (a year earlier than he had) "against a changing background of practice with regard to the supervision and management of all research students", with new, higher standards.

In a later report into Mr Edmund's complaints, university secretary Fiona Aiken found that the broadening scope of his project had been formally approved and that he had been told he was making "acceptable progress" in 1998.

She concluded: "It does appear to us that, prior to July 1998, there was insufficient scrutiny and monitoring of Mr Edmunds' progress."

She also found: "It is accepted with great regret that the department failed to provide a supervisor (for a year leading to the 1999 review), but not that this was due to inadequate action."

A spokeswoman for Lancaster said: "Mr Edmunds took a case to court that was dismissed. He was given the right to take the case to the Court of Appeal.

Before this was heard, the university's insurers advised the university to settle the case, which was done without any admission of liability."

She said "the university made considerable efforts" to replace his two supervisors after their departures. She said that Mr Edmunds had been told in May 1998 and 1999 that he should narrow his thesis focus, but "there was no evidence to show that he had attempted to do this" and that he had failed to continue essential Chinese-language studies despite cautions from supervisors.

She said: "At the panel review in May 1999, Mr Edmunds stated that he was not interested in writing a conventional academic PhD but that he wanted to develop and set out his own philosophical perspective that would challenge the academic establishment.

"He made it clear that he was not prepared to accept academic guidance on this issue."

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