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EXCLUSIVE: This student incurred thousands of pounds of costs after his university 'failed to provide proper supervision'

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A SOAS PhD student has been fighting for almost three years to continue his studies under proper supervision.

Having fallen seriously ill in 2015, Andy* took 800 days to return to his studies, incurring between £7,000 and £14,000 in costs. 

Speaking to TNS, Andy told us the final cost would have to be determined by an arbitrator or a court of law.

"Most of the hotel room nights were paid with frequent guest points given by family members. This is because I had used all my savings that I had set aside for school at that point.

"Meanwhile, I did not keep receipts for all of the meals over the many trips, this is because I was not planning to ask for reimbursements at the beginning of this process. At the end of the day, my best guess is that the number will fall somewhere in the range of $10,000 and $20,000. most likely on the higher end of the range."

Andy was also detained multiple times by the UK Border Authority during this period.

No member of staff has faced disciplinary action as suggested by Andy in his complaints and appeal. An email from the university clarified that "the appeals panel did not seek to investigate staff and made no judgements about the conduct of staff.

"The finding was simply that the student's concerns about staff conduct in such matters to be referred to HR. The panel also noted that "disciplinary action" itself can, by its very nature, only be pursued against someone employed."

The two staff members that Andy believes should face disciplinary action have since resigned and taken up other jobs within the University of London. In an email exchange, staff told Andy that there were no mechanisms in place "for sharing complaints with other institutions."

In 2015, Andy was forced to interrupt his studies due to a serious illness while overseas conducting doctoral fieldwork.

This forced him to suspend his PhD and go on approved medical leave. He contacted SOAS's doctoral department with the intention to suspend his Tier 4 student visa, organise the re-crediting of the fees previously paid, and to notify the relevant departments of his medical leave.

When he was given medical clearance to return in December of 2015, Andy expressed wishes to return to his studies.  

However, he was unable to enrol after a member of the doctoral school failed to organise the re-crediting of fees.

At the cost of around £1,000, Andy returned to the UK to register in person but was detained and questioned at the border regarding his visa. The Doctoral School Manager had allegedly failed to notify authorities of the medical leave, meaning his visa was curtailed.

A secondary detention order was then allegedly placed on Andy for future entry into the UK.

Having missed a term in which to enrol, he submitted a formal complaint in April about the handling of his medical leave.

"It is bad enough to be so sick that you are hospitalised," Andy said. "You don’t need this on top of it.”

A formal investigation determined that Andy was forced to miss more than six months of time that he could have spent resuming his PhD. This has been attributed to the inability of staff to communicate and organise the re-crediting of fees.

In June of 2016, the university contacted him saying that the issues regarding the medical leave paperwork and fee payments were resolved.

At this time Andy was contacted by the Information Compliance Manager to ask whether he would consider dropping his formal complaint against the Doctoral School Manager who had failed to establish his medical leave or finalise the reimbursement of his fees.

In October, when for the third time that year Andy went to enrol, he was contacted by the Fees Team about his payments. Neither the Doctoral School Manager nor the Information Compliance Manager had notified the Office of the Registrar about the agreed upon reimbursement.

This was finally resolved in November and Andy officially resumed his PhD programme through an agreed upon medical accommodation arrangement that permitted him to complete his degree at distance.

Immediately, the second set of problems arose when Andy began to notice a failure on the part of his supervisor to meet his obligations under the agreed overseas study plan.

From October 2016 to April 2017, only one supervisory meeting was effectively conducted. Afterwards, the supervisor allegedly stopped responding to his correspondence.

Andy was again contacted regarding his visa from a different department. The Doctoral School Manager allegedly failed to contact the records management department at the university. Therefore, in April 2017 a second complaint was filed.

The complaints cited continual lack of communication and constant delays on top of the inability to uphold the conditions of the agreement regarding supervision.

In August 2017, the formal investigation concluded that supervision must be arranged. Financial compensation of £2,000 and a written apology from the director of the university was submitted.

However, the investigator did not recommend any disciplinary action for the mismanagement of the medical leave.

It was explained to Andy that the Doctoral School Manager and Information Compliance Officer could not be referred for disciplinary action because they had resigned and taken on new positions at the London School of Economics and King’s College London respectively. Action can only be pursued against employed members of staff. 

The university claimed they had no power by which to hold these staff responsible.

SOAS Complaints Rules 4.8 (v)

At the end of October, Andy filed an official appeal on the grounds that SOAS had failed to implement the recommendations of the investigator. The investigator had failed to follow the salient evidence, and as a consequence, the report’s conclusions were manifestly unreasonable. 

After a series of delays in fixing the date of the appeal, which Andy told us took a “serious toll" on his mental health, the appeal was conducted on the 3rd of January 2018.  

He attended the appeals hearing in person.

Arriving in the UK, Andy was detained and again questioned due to the secondary detention order that remained in the system. Prior to arriving, he had explicitly requested a letter explaining his overseas study plan as to prevent further detentions at the border.

However, this was allegedly never issued by the university.

The decision of the appeals panel was delayed beyond the 40-day deadline in clear violation of the student complaints procedure.

"I was watching my life be destroyed by people who don’t seem to have my best interest in mind and I had no power to fix it," Andy told us.

In late February, Andy notified the Information Compliance Manager that the university was in violation of the 40-day deadline for the delivery of the decision of the appeals panel.

The appeals panel determined that the school had failed to provide the student with a viable supervisory arrangement to complete their degree. They, therefore, recommended that the student was provided with a viable internal or external supervisory arrangement within three months, plus an agreed increase in the level of compensation from £2,000 to £5,000 for the distress caused.

They also concluded that it was not possible to take disciplinary action against former members of staff but other matters raised would be referred to HR.

After being CC’d into emails between senior staff members that stated that it was impossible for viable supervision to be arranged, Andy rejected the decisions of the appeals panel on the grounds that they had not acted in good faith.  

Finally, a third complaint was filed in February of this year. The central claim of the third complaint is the mismanaging of the ongoing complaint and appeal by the Information Compliance Office.

Throughout the entire process, the student was told dozens of times, from various staff members, that they were “busy”, “understaffed” or in one case that a staff member had “only spent one full day in the office this week."

The financial costs throughout the years have cost Andy between £7,000 and £14,000.

One member of the appeals committee stated that they felt “deeply personally embarrassed” and suggested that Andy contact the Director of SOAS, Baroness Valerie Amos, which Andy has done so multiple times over the past year.

Baroness Amos has allegedly promised to pursue the matter, but Andy has not received any further assurance or evidence to show that she has engaged with the problem.

“I honestly feel that Baroness Amos should be held personally responsible for my mistreatment at SOAS," Andy told us.

"Over the last year, Baroness Amos has been asked multiple times by multiple individuals to intervene in my case. This includes personal appeals from her own senior staff.

"Nevertheless, no one has provided me with any evidence that she has done anything to help me.

"Baroness Amos bears ultimate responsibility for these failings as the director of the university. I hope that the Board of Trustees will consider her conduct at their next board meeting.” 

*Name has been changed to protect identity 

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