Because of my experiences at Oxford, detailed below, I started this non-for-profit project, Do Better Academia: a community of campaigners who support other victims of wrongdoing in universities and campaign for accountability in universities.
In 2011, I enrolled to do a PhD (DPhil) at Oxford. In the subsequent 3 and half years, I suffered malpractice, bullying and being pushed out of a job after whistleblowing on students' safety.
- I was assigned a PhD supervisor who did not know about my subject and, when I complained and asked to change supervisor, I was told that if I wanted to change supervisor I should leave the university. Eventually, I changed supervisor but was asked by the current Dean of the Law Faculty to give a false reason for the switch to my old supervisor. However, my new supervisor also did not know about my PhD topic and I was failed for that reason.
- While I was a student, I worked as Welfare Officer for one of the Oxford colleges, Oriel. There I saw that the college staff members responsible for welfare did not appear to know about welfare procedures, including suicide prevention procedures. I became very concerned about the safety and welfare of students and raised my concerns with senior academics and officers of the college, who took no action whatever. After raising my concerns, I was bullied relentlessly and ostracised by the college staff responsible for welfare. Rather than dealing with my student safety concerns and with the bullying, the college offered to terminate my employment with a non-disclosure agreement. Read more here.
The way Oxford treated me fills me with anger: they were happy to take my money but treated me as if I were an inconvenience. After my PhD thesis was failed, Oxford and the Dean of the Law Faculty (my second supervisor) made a number of statements that are inconsistent with the evidence (below). This adds insult to injury: as soon as there are problems, the complainant is treated with contempt.
Oxford appeared to have no interest or concern about myself and my wellbeing and my future: they only appeared to care about protecting themselves. Even my supervisor, who works on accountability in law, made statements (inconsistent with the evidence) that potentially put me in a bad light. Where is the concern for the student? Is Oxford only interested in itself?
Oxford had no consideration - and no care - for my wellbeing, my future and my career prospects. I was stressed throughout this period and suffered severe financial damage for paying fees to Oxford and being out of employment for 3 years. My employment prospects were narrowed as a result and the opportunities I could have had if I had a PhD from Oxford. I wasted 3 and half years of my life. Did Oxford care about this? How would you feel if you were in this situation?
"Institutions are tempted to put their own reputation ahead of the allegations, and dealing with something that has an impact on the lives of individuals. They try and find ways of burying it and dealing with it in a secretive way. We know this, it’s about silencing the complaint." Former Head of Mansfield College, Oxford, Baroness Helena Kennedy QC
Did Oxford provide suitable supervision?
My thesis was failed - with the advice that I "might benefit from input from a specialist in trust law". Although my PhD topic was the law of pension trusts, my supervisor did not have this "specialism". Here are some of the events as to how this came to be.
I was asked to leave Oxford if I wanted to change supervisor
When I accepted an offer to start a PhD on the law of pension trusts at Oxford University, I was assigned a supervisor. In May 2011, I contacted the Director of Graduate Studies, Stephen Weatherill, to meet to discuss concerns regarding my supervisor and requested a change of supervisor on the basis that my supervisor was not qualified to supervise my PhD, as he had no expertise in pension law. The Director of Graduate Studies is the Law Faculty officer responsible for supervision concerns. Despite this being accepted by the DOGS, I was denied a new supervisor, and asked to leave. Here are the details of what happened:
The following happened in the meeting:
- I told Stephen Weatherill that "I [had] realized that my supervisor knew nothing whatever (not even the basics) about my topic... Despite this, [my supervisor] states (and argues) facts that are not accurate, and offers advice on issues he clearly has no knowledge on." For these reasons, I asked Stephen Weatherill to change supervisor.
- Stephen Weatherill was not surprised to hear that my supervisor was unsuitable and accepted this. I then queried why Oxford had made me an offer (despite my supervisor clearly not having expertise in my area), Stephen Weatherill answered 'I don't know.' He went on to say that my supervisor 'can do everything' (in a sarcastic tone).
- Stephen Weatherill made no suggestions whatever about this situation. Instead, I made some suggestions to him that:
- he/Oxford help me find another supervisor at Oxford; or
- he/Oxford help me find an external supervisor; or
- he/Oxford help me transfer to another institution starting from the second year.
- Stephen Weatherill rejected all those suggestions and suggested that I apply at a different university starting again from the first year. I explained that the application deadline had passed and I would need to wait another year to apply and that I had already paid £10,000 in fees to Oxford. Stephen Weatherill did not appear to be concerned about the loss of funds, or training time.
The message from the meeting appeared to be that Oxford was not concerned that I did not have a suitable supervisor and appeared to indicate that if I was not happy, I should leave: it was my problem, not theirs. However, Oxford were very happy to take the £10,000 I paid in fees to them; and to accept me into a programme without a suitable supervisor.
After the meeting with Stephen Weatherill, I was deeply shocked and hurt as to what he had said: Oxford had a duty of care toward me as a student. Yet, I felt he had dismissed my very serious concerns, and treated me as if I were an inconvenience to him that he wanted to get rid of.
His job required him to help me. Why would anyone feel so entitled not do the job they are paid to do? How can it be that he felt so comfortable asking me to leave the university after I paid £10,000 in fees to them? How can anyone - especially someone whose job requires them to teach students - behave like this?
Oxford are aware of the above and have made no comment.
Who suggested that I give my supervisor an incorrect reason for changing to a different supervisor?
Because I was so angry with how Stephen Weatherill had treated me, I went to complain about him and my supervisor to my College Advisor, Anne Davies. My College Advisor was the designated person to raise these concerns in the university's complaints process.
Anne Davies suggested that I lie to my supervisor and state that I had changed PhD topic as a justification for why I wanted to change to another supervisor. This would have been a serious misrepresentation, as I did not have any intention to change my PhD topic and, indeed subsequently did not change this. I also told her about my meeting with Stephen Weatherill
Oxford/Anne Davies have subsequently denied that this happened. Instead, Oxford/Anne Davies claimed that I had proposed "these comments... in order to avoid causing offense to" my supervisor and that I was "reassured" that I "had no cause for concern by seeking to change supervisor."
I have provided extensive email evidence contradicting Oxford's/Anne Davies' account. And despite their denials, Oxford have been unable to provide any written documentation to support their claim, even though they have been repeatedly asked to do so.
After Oxford/Anne Davies made those statements, I provided them with contradicting Oxford's/Anne Davies' account: the emails indicate she had asked me to tell my supervisor that the focus of my work had changed, even though this was not true.
Oxford never provided any evidence of their assertions (or Anne Davies' assertions), despite many requests that they do so.
Throughout this process, I found Stephen Weatherill's and Anne Davies' behaviour shocking. They were the people responsible to help me and other students: is this how responsible people with a duty of care toward students and their colleagues should behave?
Anne Davies had a duty to me as her student. Her account of events, which is contradicted by the evidence, portrays me as someone who would give a false account of our meeting and as someone who would walk into the office of a near stranger and invite them to give a false pretext to one of their own colleagues for no benefit to myself. Why would I do this? What kind of person does this make me out to be?
How would you feel if a person who has a duty towards you tries to make you look like that kind of person?
Who are Anne Davies and Stephen Weatherill?
Anne Davies is the Dean of the Oxford Law Faculty and is also Professor of Law and Public Policy. Her PhD thesis became a book titled: "Accountability: a Public Law Analysis of Government". One of her interests is "Medical Law and Ethics".
I gave Oxford the full email exchanges above in January 2018. She is still Dean of the Oxford Law Faculty, the person in charge of the Law Faculty.
Stephen Weatherill is Professor of European Law. He published on 'Legitimacy, Accountability and Delegation in the European Union' in Arnull and Wincott (eds), Accountability and Legitimacy in the European Union (OUP 2002).
While Anne Davies was Dean of the Law Faculty, Stephen Weatherill was appointed as Director of Graduate Studies, the role that he had when we had the meeting described above.
Was the re-appointment of Stephen Weatherill as Director of Graduate Studies an appropriate choice? Was the continued appointment of Anne Davies' as Dean of the Law Faculty appropriate?
How do universities check if the promotions in universities are appropriate? Who checks whether persons in positions of authority should/should not remain in those positions? Is there anyone independent and free of conflicts of interests who checks? Or is this process done by those who have professional and/or personal conflicts of interests?
Anne Davies also told me that a Law Faculty academic sometimes gives a "really hard time" to students in assessments and then fails them just because they are "having a bad day". This person still works in the Oxford Law faculty.
How does the behaviour above and these assertions fit in with the concept of accountability? Who is holding them accountable? Who is holding Oxford accountable?
Do you know of persons being promoted in universities when there are questions as to their suitability for that position?
What is Oxford's interpretation of "field of study"?
The subject of my PhD was the law of pension trusts. At the time, neither my first supervisor nor Anne Davies had any experience in pensions law and Anne Davies had no experience (in the form of either teaching or research/publications) in trust law. My PhD examiners' reason for failing my thesis was that I "might benefit from input from a specialist in trust law".
Oxford stated a number of times that they had provided me with "supervisors with the appropriate experience and expertise in [my] field of study".
Anne Davies' profiles do not list any "expertise and experience" or indeed any knowledge in the law of pension trusts. There are many publications listed, but none of those relate to either trust law or pensions.
If interpreted to mean that if "expertise and experience in [a] field of study" is any experience whatever by way or research, publications, teaching or practical experience, Oxford's assertions are factually incorrect. Are those statements true?
Universities like Oxford hold themselves out to be bastions of truth and integrity. Is this something you would expect an organisation acting with truth and integrity to say?
Is this what really happened?
After my thesis was failed, Oxford stated a number of times that "at no time during [my] studies was a complaint made in relation to the standard of supervision... Had [I] had any concerns with the standard of supervision then the appropriate way to have raised this issue would have been through the University's prescribed complaints process."
They made this statement despite the fact that I had provided Oxford with a copy of an email showing that I had complained about my supervisor to Stephen Weatherill.
A change of topic/focus of a PhD would have required approval from the Graduate Studies Committee, which was never sought or obtained.
"Had [I] had any concerns with the standard of supervision then the appropriate way to have raised this issue would have been would have been through the University's prescribed complaints process". The University's prescribed complaints process was to "discuss" the change of supervision with the Director of Graduate Studies or the college advisor. That is precisely what I did.
Are these statements from Oxford consistent with the evidence above?
Can a complaints process ever be fair if the people you're complaining about are those deciding the complaint?
Oxford stated that I should pursue "a complaint in accordance with the University's Complaints Processes."
Both the Law Faculty and the Internal Complaints Procedure require the complainant to address their complaint to:
- The Director of Graduate Studies, who at the time was Stephen Weatherill;
- The Dean of the Law Faculty, who was at the time (and still is) Anne Davies;
- The University Proctors.
In other words, Oxford requested that I complain to the very same people I was complaining about. I thought it may be a joke, but they were actually serious.
The Proctors at the time were: all but one were either members of Brasenose College, Anne Davies' college, or Law Faculty members. Oxbridge fellows have free of charge meals in their college and it is not unusual for Fellows to have lunch in college with each other; they also have Senior Common Rooms where they can all meet for socialising, relaxing or tea/coffee. All the Brasenose Proctors were likely to have a close professional or personal relationship with each other. Therefore, the Proctors were likely to have a professional relationship and/or be friends with Anne Davies and - as such - one would expect there would be acute conflicts of interests.
How could anyone expect to be treated fairly, when one's complaint is to be dealt with by the very same people one is complaining about? Or by their close colleagues and/or friends?
Would this situation be accepted as "fair" or "a fair hearing" in any democratic process? Why is this accepted at Oxford, who purport to be bastions of justice and integrity?
How would you feel if you had more than 3 years of your life and given tens of thousands of pounds to an institution and they treated you like an inconvenience?
How would you feel if they responded to you the way they responded to me?
How would you feel if this were you?
Is this fairness? Is this justice?
I feel that not only have I been wronged by Oxford, but they treated me with contempt when I started to complain about the way I was treated. How would you feel if you were treated this way?
Should Oxford - and all other universities - continue to operate in this way? #OxfordScandal
In the 21st century, why are we still accepting that universities behave with such contempt for individuals, disregarding the values of honesty and transparency they claim to uphold? Why are we allowing them to damage lives and get away with impunity?
It is time to have rigorous accountability from an external source that oversees universities. The current system has created a #BrokenAcademia - you can follow and take part in the discussion on Twitter @DBetterAcademia
My Non-Disclosure Agreement at Oxford
In September 2013, I started to work as Welfare Officer for Oriel College, Oxford and I was also a student at Oriel, where I found the following:
- IGNORANCE OF BASIC WELFARE PROCEDURES, INCLUDING SUICIDE PREVENTION PROCEDURES: at least on one occasion, the welfare team did not use established suicide prevention procedures (as recommended by the Oxford University Counselling Service) and seemed to be completely unaware of their existence. In a team meeting, a team member explained what they had done in the case of one student expressing suicidal intentions.The response of the Oriel staff member in charge was dismissive and aggressive; he essentially asked me to shut up, rather than addressing my concerns, I was subsequently excluded from the conversation, and side-lined. I became very concerned that essential safeguarding procedures were not only not followed, but also not known and ignored by Oriel.
- CONFIDENTIALITY: I had concerns on how confidential information disclosed by students was shared with persons who had no welfare interest in knowing this information: for example, the Oriel staff members in charge of welfare shared private student information in casual conversation at dinner with persons not involved in either discipline or welfare. Another example is the inclusion of a porter (defined by the Cambridge Dictionary as: "someone whose job is to take care of a large building where many people live and be present at its entrance in order to help people who live or visit there") in all of the welfare discussions: why does someone who takes care of building need to know about a person's confidential problems?
- INAPPROPRIATE AND INSENSITIVE COMMENTS REGARDING STUDENTS: For example, the Oriel staff members responsible for welfare were happy and relieved when a student who had approached us with welfare problems dropped out. I was shocked when I heard them speak in that way about a vulnerable student: our job was to help people like this student, not to rejoice when they interrupted their studies because of their mental health. Their behaviour appeared derogatory, and degrading to the dignity of students with mental illness, which was very inappropriate for an office that was supposed to support students.
- RELENTLESS BULLYING AND RETALIATION: soon after I started working as Welfare Office, I noticed that there were serious concerns regarding the knowledge and implementation of welfare procedures and the confidentiality of students disclosing private and sensitive information to the team. When I raised these concerns with Oriel, I started to get bullied relentlessly. They became hostile and angry in virtually all interactions with me, I was silenced in meetings and excluded from events that someone doing my job would be part of and many more acts of open aggression and passive aggression. I was responsible for meeting students with welfare issues on behalf of the college: I was supposed to be able to rely on my bosses, but instead they ostracised me in my work in every possible way. I was also feeling stressed and upset because of the anger and contempt that they showed against me: my room was right opposite of their theirs and just below the other one's. I asked Oriel to move rooms (to a room that I knew was empty). They refused, even though they were aware and had been informed a number of times about my distress and the conduct I was being subjected to.
I was very concerned about the well-being of students and how they were treated by the welfare team. I was concerned that their lack of knowledge of welfare matters may put students' lives at risk and it may make students' mental health worse.
I therefore raised all the concerns above with as many of academics and college officers at Oriel as I could, including senior officers and academics. The junior academics were sympathetic, but they did not have the power to do anything. The more senior were seemingly nice, but did absolutely nothing.
In fact, Oriel had been aware of allegations of bullying against the same two people from previous years through other complaints. On September, the employment term for one of them came to an end. Despite being aware of the bullying allegations, Oriel reappointed him for another term and created an offical position on the welfare him especially for him. Essentially, someone with repeated allegations of bullying against them was not only re-appointed, but given a position of responsibility in the welfare team, an office that was responsible for the wellbeing of students.
At this point, not only was I being bullied and gaslit relentlessly for raising valid concerns, but it became clear that despite the duty of the office to protect student welfare, nobody was interested in doing anything.
Despite months of talking with HR and various seniors officers, they did nothing whatever. I felt as if I were speaking with walls: I have never seen this level of disregard for people, almost contempt. My impression was that they viewed people generally as an inconvenience and anyone daring not to tow the party line or show any dissent as a person to be shunned and removed.
One day I was invited to a meeting with the HR officer. I was hoping that - finally - Oriel would address the problems of bullying, as well as concerns with the college welfare arrangement and confidentiality. Instead, I was told that she had "good news" for me: the college had decided to offer me a compromise agreement (which contained a Non-Disclosure Agreement).
I remember thinking: how is this good news? I am being pushed out from a job I deeply cared about and I am leaving the students in situation I felt apprehensive about. Why doesn't Oriel simply deal with these problems rather than removing me?
In the end, my friends convinced me to accept the Compromise Agreement because the situation at Oriel was not likely to change. And they were right. They conducted a welfare review to which I submitted two reports full of documents (9 and 13 pages long) and evidence on my concerns. Despite these two documents and an NDA, Oriel's conclusion of their welfare and discipline review was that nothing would change.
I felt stressed throughout that period and concerned about students' wellbeing because I knew that there were no safe and proper procedures in place.
It is often said that universities will protect "unsuitable" individuals because they bring in funds. Not in this case. The Oriel staff members responsible for welfare were not in a position of power or responsibility, did not bring in any money to the college and were not renowned academics and relatively junior. Therefore, universities appear to bury complaints in order to maintain the "status quo".
If this can happen to me, it can happen to anyone. And it does, it's just that - for the most part - it's hidden from the public eyes because "institutions try and find ways of burying [a complaint] and dealing with it in a secretive way: it’s about silencing the complaint."
In the 21st century, why are we still accepting that universities behave with such contempt for individuals, disregarding the values of honesty and transparency they seek to uphold? Why are we allowing them to damage lives and get away with impunity?
It is time to have rigorous accountability from an external source that oversees universities. The current system has created a #BrokenAcademia - you can follow and take part in the discussion on Twitter @DBetterAcademia