Public interest cases

Supervision - September 2015


Supervision arrangements

University of York

A postgraduate student at the University of York complained to the OIA about the way the University had responded to complaints about her supervision.

The University did not inform her that her primary supervisor left the University before she commenced her studies. The student explained that this delay meant that she was denied the chance to consider changing institutions before she began her courses. The University appointed an alternative supervisor, but did not appoint a Thesis Advisory Panel, which it acknowledged meant that the student did not have access to an important source of professional input and guidance. The University had offered a payment of £2,000 to the student to compensate for the issues she experienced.

The OIA concluded that it was the responsibility of the University to inform the student of the change in supervisor and to put in place suitable alternative arrangements. We found the case Justified and recommended an increased financial payment of £3,500.


Using the right forum to raise issues

Kingston University

A student at Kingston University complained after her academic appeal was turned down.

In the course of her appeal the student raised concerns about the supervision she received while preparing her dissertation. These issues were outside the scope of the University appeals regulations.

It would have been open to the student to make a complaint about her supervision. However the complaints process required complaints to be made within 15 working days of the events giving rise to the complaint taking place. In this case the student did not raise her concerns for several months and gave no reason why she had not done so earlier.

The OIA found the case Not Justified.


Importance of sharing information

University of Lincoln

A PhD student at the University of Lincoln complained of bullying and harassment by a supervisor. The student was dissatisfied with the University’s initial investigation because the University characterised the issues raised as ‘miscommunication’ and proposed remedies after the first investigation that left the student feeling vulnerable. His complaint was considered at two subsequent stages of the University’s Complaints Procedure but the University’s final decision was not to refer it to a formal complaint hearing.

The OIA found that the University’s consideration of the complaint had not been reasonable as the supervisor’s responses to the issues the student raised were not passed on to the student or to the panel looking at the complaint. This was not a fair procedure and we considered it likely that it would have made it more difficult for the student to prepare a request for review. We also considered that the panel had not been in a position to make a decision on the review request as it did not have all the relevant information.

The OIA found the case Justified on the basis that a fair process had not been followed. We did not consider the substantive grounds of the complaint about bullying. We recommended that the University offer the student, who had since left, the opportunity to resubmit a statement, outlining concerns about the outcome of the first investigation, for consideration at a hearing of the University’s Complaints Board, and that the University review its procedures. The University reviewed its procedures and made changes to its complaints process as a result of the OIA’s recommendations.


Providing supervisory team

University of Cumbria

A postgraduate student at the University of Cumbria made a number of complaints about his supervision.

The University was able to demonstrate that the main supervisor had provided regular support and encouraged the student to seek input as his work developed. However it did not inform the student that his second supervisor had left the University and did not arrange a replacement.

The University upheld elements of the student’s complaint and offered to cancel the balance of his tuition fees and refund any expenses which he could evidence.

The OIA considered that the University did not follow the guidance given to students in the research handbook and that this put the student at a disadvantage. There were delays in the way the University dealt with the student’s complaint and this also disadvantaged the student. We found the complaint Partly Justified and recommended financial compensation for distress and inconvenience, cancelation of the outstanding balance of fees, an apology and a review of the complaints procedure.


Academic Judgment

University of Bath

A student who had withdrawn from a programme at the University of Bath complained that his lead supervisor did not have the necessary expertise  to supervise his work.

In considering the complaint the OIA noted that the student had not raised any concerns about his supervision, or requested a change of supervisor, before he withdrew from the course. It would have been open to him to seek advice from the university while he was still a student.

Under the Rules of the OIA Scheme the OIA cannot consider a complaint to the extent that it relates to a matter of academic judgment. A person without relevant academic expertise is unable to make a meaningful assessment of the quality of the academic support received during the PhD.

The OIA decided that the university’s decision not to uphold the student’s complaint was reasonable in the circumstances of the case.

The complaint was found Not Justified.


Responsibility of students

London School of Economics

A student at the London School of Economics complained to the OIA after the School dismissed her appeal against a decision not to upgrade her to PhD status.

The student complained that the panel making the decision had not considered her supervision, which she felt had been ‘unsatisfactory’ during her first year.

There was no evidence that the student had complained formally or informally about her supervision prior to appealing the decision not to upgrade her to a PhD. When her appeal was dismissed the School informed the student of the process to make a complaint but she did not pursue this. Had the student complained at an early stage there may have been an opportunity for the School to look into and if appropriate address the issues she raised.

The OIA considers that students at this stage of their academic careers can be expected to take responsibility for their own learning and for raising any concerns. In this case we considered that the student’s  subsequent appeal submission, based solely on problems with supervision once she had received the Panel’s decision, was undermined by the absence of complaints made at the time. We found her complaint Not Justified.