Students and Universities - Innovation, Universities, Science and Skills Committee Contents

Memorandum 93

Submission from John Wildman


1.  Statement of Personal Background Experience

  1.  I lost the hearing in my left ear due to a cholesteatoma (a benign tumour) at the age of 16. Nevertheless, I achieved a place at the University of Liverpool to read a Bachelor's degree in Psychology and Neuroscience which I started in September 2000.

2.  Although I had declared my disability, I was not provided with note-takers for lectures, sometimes for entire modules. The University later claimed that this was my duty to arrange.

3.  The University did not put the SENDA provisions of the Disability Discrimination Act in place for my cohort of students in 2003. There were no alternative dates for examinations or adjustments based on need.

4.  In my second year the tumour began to re-grow and worsened in my final year. This caused dizziness, tinnitus, infections and severe pain. I fell and broke my wrist requiring an operation. Three letters from my ENT Consultant to the University were disregarded. I was advised by my tutor to complete my degree, delaying an operation on my ear condition.

  5.  Agreed extensions to course work were not honoured and the University capped my coursework marks. My supervisor for my "Third Year Project" resigned and was not replaced. I was failed by 1% for this element.

  6.  Due to a certified illness, I missed three examinations in my final year. There was no opportunity to sit them on an alternative date.

  7.  I was awarded a Pass degree instead of the 2.1 which was my expectation. This meant that I was ineligible for Graduate Basis for Registration (GBR) with the British Psychological Society (BPS).

  8.  Soon after I graduated, I underwent the operation that I had previously delayed. This went wrong because I was not given antibiotics and this left me very ill for over a year. Consequently, I was unable to bring the University to account under the Disability Discrimination Act because I missed the six month time limit for bringing action.

  9.  My complaints under the University system were all handled by the same Director who was responsible for disability support at the University. Complaints to University Council members were not substantially answered.

  10.  A complaint to the University Visitor, administered by the Office of Independent Adjudicators for Higher Education (OIA) was unsuccessful. A Small Claims Court action was similarly unsuccessful. In both cases the University position was put only by the Director responsible. He incurred £18,500 in legal costs.

  11.  At no point did the University attempt to seek a solution to my situation and rejected my advances about re-sitting my third year.

  12.  I subsequently gained a Master's degree in Sport and Exercise Science (Psychology) at Manchester Metropolitan.

  13.  Without the GBR, I could not enrol for a specialist psychology Master's accredited by the BPS. Only with the Secretary of State's approval of the Disability Discrimination Code of Practice for Professional Organisations did the BPS make a "reasonable adjustment" and admit me to GBR in October 2008.

  14.  I have applied for many PhD and NHS clinical and research jobs. All have required a 2.1 or First at undergraduate degree level. My Master's degree is disregarded.

2.  Disability Issues in Higher Education

  1.  I accept that understanding of the duties and provision of services has improved considerably since my experience of the negligence of the University of Liverpool. Since leaving university, I have had involvement with the charity Scope which provided into work initiatives for graduates with disabilities. However, this scheme has recently been mothballed.

  2.  My own case was recently featured in the Higher Education Academy conference "Into the professions: enabling entry and success for disabled learners."

  3.  The number of Disability cases against Universities brought in the County Court is very small, but this probably reflects the difficulty of the process. Awards by the OIA in disability cases are very low.


  1.  HEI's must be given greater responsibility for assisting students with disabilities into work. This will encourage improved perceptions of their employability and clarify competencies.

  2.  Cases within the Disability Discrimination Act Part 4, Further and Higher Education, should be brought before the more familiar and appropriately experienced Tribunal Service.

  3.  A nominated University Council member should have responsibility for disability issues.

3.  QAA Code of Practice

  1.  The QAA issues Codes of Practice on a number of topics to condition the delivery of university activities. These are no mandatory, given the "light touch" supervisory regime of QAA and Funding Councils.

  2.  The University I attended did not have in place measures meeting QAA Code standards on:

    — Disability

    — Student Complaints

    — Public Law (Nolan Committee) standards

  3.  I asked HEFCE to investigate these matters under its "whistle blowing" process. This was refused on the basis that they could not respond to student complaints.

  4.  It is a contradiction that the Quality Assurance Authority precepts are not enforced. The Codes set out standards, not aspirations and are often reiterations of requirements in other regulations.

  5.  Students should have a reasonable expectation that the university they choose will adhere to the "industry standards" set by the Quality Authority.

  6.  Proposal: That QAA Codes of Practice are mandatory and that this is a principle of the Funding Councils' memorandum with universities.

4.  The Academic Record and entering work

  1.  My attendance at lectures, seminars and tutorials while at university was very good. Disability related illness and injury significantly affected only my final year, final term, examinations and assessments, for which the University had no alternative arrangements

  2.  An employer within the NHS has recently asked me to provide evidence of the areas of study in which I had engaged as part of a "reasonable adjustment". In specialist fields of practical application like my own (Psychology and Neuroscience) this has more relevance than a degree standard based on a short period of examination. Thus, the Academic Record enables compliance with the Disability Discrimination Act.

  3.  I applied for a PhD training studentship at the Institute of Hearing Research (part of the Medical Research Council). The Research topic embraced areas with which I was familiar. However, the required competency was for a First or 2.1 degree in any of a range of disparate scientific disciplines. An Academic Record would better match applicants to job requirements.


  4.  The Academic Record is warmly endorsed

5.  The Status and Function of the Master's Degree

  1.  The number and variety of Master's degree courses has increased as people choose specialisms, vocational study or enhancement of their first degree awards.

  2.  The abolition of funding for Equal and Lower Qualifications will increase this trend.

  3.  Because of the diversity of awards, there appears to be an unwillingness to recognise the academic merit of a Master's degree.

  4.  Appointment minimum qualification standards set by the NHS and Research Councils are for a 2.1 or First at first degree level. The value of a Master's is taken to raise a 2.2 to 2.1 level. This places a Master's as equivalent to a Second Class degree.

  5.  This position is not consistent with the perception of a Master's as a higher level degree (level 5 qualification).

  6.  It is accepted, however, that the increase in Master's degrees of a vocational nature may have devalued the academic status of the qualification.


  7.  That the "Master's" degree be examined, with the possible outcome of differentiating between those of a vocational nature and those which enhance academic progression.

6.  Appointment to PhD Studentships

  1.  Anecdotal evidence and personal experience indicate that very few PhD studentships carrying a stipend funded by Research Councils are awarded to graduates who studied outside the host institution.

  2.  A recent advertisement for a PhD scholarship required applicants to have a "first class degree from a prestigious university".

  3.  The majority of research funding and thus PhD opportunities is directed through Russell Group Universities.

  4.  This progression through to doctorate studies under present arrangements is not reflecting "Wider Access" aspirations.


    5.  (a) That PhD opportunities must be advertised outside the host institution

    (b) That an appointment panel include an independent member.

7.  Student Complaints

  My experience of using the Office of Independent Adjudicator for Higher Education's service for resolving my dispute with the University of Liverpool proved to have a number of flaws:

  1.  The OIA process is one of review. As such, it presumes that the student's complaint has been already closely considered by the university's internal processes and that that process meets QAA standards.

  2.  The QAA has a Code of Practice which establishes minimum standards for university complaint procedures.

  3.  In March 2007, Professor Neville Harris of the University of Manchester Law Department found that the quality of procedures varies widely across the sector and that there was an increased risk of unfairness occurring.

  4.  In my own case, I did not have the opportunity to personally put my case to anybody of the University or the OIA. This opportunity is required by Human Rights legislation.

  5.  The OIA did not have a grasp of the Disability Discrimination Act, which was the basis of my complaint.

  6.  The OIA reiterates the Public Law precepts of the Nolan Committee in its guarantee, yet all the complaints I made against the university, including to the OIA, were handled by the same manager that was responsible for those issues which were the subject of the complaint.

  7.  I was young and ill and from a "Wider Access" background. The process of appeal against the adverse OIA decision, through a Judicial Review, was not a realistic option. Indeed, the education solicitor I consulted clearly did not know how to go about it.

  8.  The OIA argument for its own continuation is its own relative economy. However, the costs and consequences to students of a failure in the university/student relationship are considerable.


  9.  That the OIA is wound up and the dispute process beyond those within the University be vested in the Tribunals Service.

  I understand that the OIA has itself instituted a review of its arrangements, to which I have contributed.

December 2009

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