If things had gone according to plan, Paul Jones would be seeking work as a university lecturer. Instead, he is unemployed and trying to pursue a legal action against the university where he failed to complete his PhD.
The 26-year-old claims that his research is in ruins because the School of Business and Economics at the University of Exeter put unreasonable demands on him as a graduate teaching assistant when it placed him in sole charge of a module for final-year students. He claims that the supervision for his PhD was inadequate during the same period and that when he raised his fears of falling behind with his thesis, he was bullied by a lecturer who threatened him over a reference.
The university says that it disputes his version of events and does not accept his complaint, one of an increasing number being pursued by students in the UK. Though it is rare for cases to hit the headlines – most are either dropped or settled out of court with confidentiality clauses – lawyers say that they are most likely to be hired by students on postgraduate courses rather than students on undergraduate degrees, because the postgrads are older and have more to lose.
"It is disturbing to note the extraordinary number of calls we have received from aggrieved students in recent years," says Mike Charles, a partner at Sinclairs, the education law firm that is assisting Jones. "The number is certainly increasing; perhaps unsurprisingly, in view of the tuition-fee increases that result in students having greater inclination to turn to the law when they feel let down."
While pursuing his case through the internal procedures, Jones says that he discovered an email from a senior academic at Exeter warning of the risk of putting a teaching assistant in charge of a final-year undergraduate module at a time when students were becoming "increasingly snotty and litigious".
The Office of the Independent Adjudicator for Higher Education, which handles complaints against universities, confirms the trend of increasing postgraduate dissatisfaction. It draws attention in its latest annual report to the proportionately higher number of complaints from graduate students, saying they represent 37 per cent of the workload...
The biggest stumbling block for litigants is being unable to prove inadequate supervision. "If you claim that you suffered loss as a result of negligence on the part of the university then, essentially, you are claiming that the academic involved was professionally negligent and you will have to find another lecturer to back up your claim as an expert witness," he says.
Recent cases have suggested that universities are likely to settle the most viable claims rather than run the risk of larger losses and the publicity of a court case. But they are likely to defend weaker claims to make a stand. Because settlements almost always include a confidentiality clause, that gives the impression that student claims are less successful than they are in practice, he says...
A spokesman for the university said: "It is unusual for graduate teaching assistants to deliver a full course module in the Business School and this would only be contemplated where they displayed a very high level of ability. In Mr Jones's case, he had been involved in delivering aspects of this module for the two previous years."
A hearing chaired by the deputy vice-chancellor, Professor Neil Armstrong, did not accept that unreasonable teaching demands were placed on the student. "It was not unreasonable for a graduate teaching assistant to be asked to teach an entire module and it was not in breach of the university's code of practice," said Professor Armstrong.