Disputes in British Universities

Kevin Wilkinson, Aston University

THES : Mr Wilkinson's lawywe will argue that the visitor is outdated, lacks independence and transparency and sufficient expertise'

Aston University faces a High Court claim for more than £100,000 in damages next week from a former PhD student who hopes to set a legal precedent and consign the quasi-judicial visitor system to history.

Kevin Wilkinson relocated his wife and two children from Dubai and left a well-paid job to begin a PhD at Aston in 1997. But when he arrived in Birming≠ham, he found there was no one properly qualified to supervise him as his agreed tutor had left the university.

After a lengthy dispute, Aston's vice-chancellor agreed that his experience was "far from satisfactory", offered him an apology and repaid his fees. But Mr Wilkinson is claiming damages for the wasted time and lost potential earnings.

The case will initially hinge on whether the courts will be pre≠pared to hear the case, as Mr Wilkinson has refused to refer his complaints to Aston's visitor - the queen.

Case law has established that the visitor's jurisdiction is exclu≠sive, and the courts have usually refused to hear cases against universities with a visitor who in practice is usually represented by the Privy Council or Lord Chancellor's department. Mr Wilkinson is represented by trail-blazing education lawyer, Jaswinder Gill, who will argue that the visitor system is outdat≠ed, lacks independence and transparency, lacks sufficient expertise and is not capable of providing Mr Wilkinson with the kind of remedy he requires - compensation and damages.

With his argument tacitly backed by the government, which plans to legislate to scrap the visitor next year, he is hop≠ing to set a legal precedent and ask the High Court to override the visitor's jurisdiction.

Visitor admits failings

The number of students com≠plaining about their Universities to the Privy Council has rocketed sixfold in the past five years, but the council has admitted it can provide only "amateur justice".

Alex Galloway, clerk to the Privy Council. this week confirmed to the THES that the Privy Council received about 40 complaints a year in its capacity as the quasi-judicial visitor to 17 universities, compared with half a dozen five years ago.

Mr Galloway said that about six complaints a year were upheld, but "we have often included in adjudication criticisms of university systems and suggested improvements".

He said the increased number of complaints was a result of increased awareness, with the Privy Council becoming "more open about [its] existence" and issuing guidance.

Although Mr Galloway said he had done much to improve the service to students since he became clerk in 1998 - such as publishing the reasons for judg≠ments for the first time - he admitted that the visitor system still provided only "amateur jus≠tice, at least as operated in this office". Other visitors made greater use of professional legal input, but the Privy Council does not have the resources and had a lot of other government busi≠ness that took up its time.

Mr Galloway said the Privy Council supported government plans to set up a student com≠plaints ombudsman.

Problem with petition

A former medical student has accused the Privy Council of trying to ignore his complaints against Sheffield University, where he spent ten years attempting to qualify as a doctor.

Sushant Varma listed his complaints against Sheffield in a petition to the Privy Council which acts as the university's visitor. But although the Privy Council's guidelines say that "there is no set format for a peti≠tion to the visitor", Dr Varma's petition was rejected on the basis that "it cannot be accepted in its present form".

"I was taken aback by the hostile nature of the letter," said Dr Varma, who recently qualified as a doctor outside Sheffield. A revised petition sent in July has not been acknowledged.

Privy Council clerk Alex Galloway told the THES that he had not received the revised peti≠tion and would request a copy. He said that the first version included material outside the visitor's jurisdiction, contrary to the guidance available, and that any "frankness" detected in the tone of his letter was directed at Dr Varma's solicitor, whom he criticized for the way he repre≠sented Dr Varma.

'There is no question of barring access to the visitor," he added.