Institute of Communications Studies, University of Leeds


For more than a year, I have been engaged in a case against the Institute of Communications Studies (ICS), University of Leeds. After many attempts to change supervision, the Postgraduate Research Tutor, who after that began bullying me, denied me this change.  Instead of providing me with the pastoral care he was responsible for, he forced me into an impossible supervisory arrangement that was preventing me from developing my PhD further.

I had only 8 supervision meetings during the 2009-2010 academic year, which decreased to five supervision meetings in the 2010-2011 academic year, well below the minimum of 10 supervision meetings that I am entitled to as stipulated in the Research Student Handbook. Despite the lack of adequate supervision meetings, I officially passed my upgrade viva and transferred into full PhD status on September 2010.

In November 2010, I broke my right ankle and notified my supervisory team that I was immobile and unable to work. I shared with my supervisory team and the Postgraduate Research Tutor my physician’s letters that stated that the accident I sustained "will have affected her ability to study."  Instead of providing me with pastoral support, the supervisory team sent threatening e-mails indicating that if I did not get well by a certain period of time, they would suspend my PhD.

I had no idea what they meant by "suspension" and when asked to clarify matters I was not given a response. This added considerable pressure and anxiety while I was unwell and is just another example that points to the level of bullying and intimidation that I encountered while being supervised.

I was asked to attend a 6-month progress review meeting on the 10th January 2011. The timing of this meeting was very suspicious, as I had only passed my upgrade viva only four months ago on September 2010. If this was supposed to be a 6-month progress review meeting, it should have been scheduled in March 2011, not in January. Additionally, it was odd that a progress review be called given that I had been unwell for almost two months and was not able to work on my research.

During the 6-month progress review meeting, one of the members asked me rather bizarrely if I was depressed as I “appear[ed] unwell during the meeting”, and once again I explained that I was still recovering from a major accident and still not back to 100% good health. I said that it was highly unprofessional to accuse someone from suffering mental issues in order to obscure the seriousness of my frustrations with his lack of supervision and the general supervisory arrangements thus far.

Additionally, I am told that I have not made sufficient progress with my research. I protested and indicated that I have been unwell and immobile for nearly two months and have extensive medical evidence that indicate that that my accident would affect my ability to study. When I inquired about getting an extension, I am told that my illness does not warrant one. 

I was racially discriminated by one of my supervisors, at a supervision meeting on the 23rd March 2011. I was shocked when this particular co-supervisor asked if English is my first language. I was perplexed why I was asked such a question given that English is my native language. I was not required by the ICS to take a university English language test as indicated in the Research Student Handbook (2009/2010: 11). Likewise, Prof. Knott never mentioned anything of my writing style before this date or when I contributed a chapter for her co-edited book. At no point of working on her book project did this co-supervisor raise any issue with my writing style and/or asked if I was a native English speaker/writer. 

I did not understand the relevance of asking me such a question during our supervision meeting. I mentioned that while I do at times make grammatical errors, that I was confident in fixing those. My main concern was the content of my chapters and the lack of engagement with it during supervision meetings. I can think of no other reason why this co-supervisor would ask such a ridiculous question other than to undermine my confidence and make me feel incompetent because I am a minority student in this country.

Despite continued bullying, I was able to make progress with my research and was invited to give a presentation at the International Association for Media and Communications Research (IAMCR). I received funding by the ICS and support from both my supervisory team and the Postgraduate Research Tutor to attend and represent the ICS at the conference. At the IAMCR conference, a lecturer from the ICS who attended my presentation stated:

"I was in attendance at [Sanaz’s] talk at IAMCR and saw first-hand the high quality of her doctoral research and the way it engaged scholars in a highly productive way."
Returning from the IAMCR conference, I attend a second 6-month progress review meeting on the 22 July 2011. At this meeting, I am told that I am not making sufficient progress with my PhD studies. I argued that none of my written supervisory minutes indicate any issue with the progress that I have made since January 2011, and if there was an issue with my progress, why then did the supervisory team and the Postgraduate Research Tutor encourage and fund my presentation to IAMCR?

After more bullying my research scholarship (fees plus maintenance) was withdrawn without being informed clearly in writing about the assessment of my progress. The withdrawal of my scholarship is in breach of the Research Student Handbook regulations, which state:

Where progress is deemed to be unsatisfactory, the Postgraduate Research Tutor and the supervisor and specific instructions and objectives given should interview the student. The Student should be advised that failure to meet those requirements might lead to a recommendation for the termination of the candidature.

I was never interviewed by the Postgraduate Research Tutor and the supervisory team and given specific instructions and/or objectives towards improving my PhD. In fact, my supervisory meeting notes from 2009-2010 and 2010-2011 do not indicate any issue with my progress.

My scholarship was revoked on 15 August 2011. The ICS knew very well that it would be nearly impossible for me to raise enough money to be able to continue on for my 3rd year of studies, especially as I was only three weeks into the start of the new academic term. The Head of the ICS along with Postgraduate Research Tutor offered me no other help or advice if I wanted to appeal this decision.

It took me four months to collate all evidence to bring forth a case against the ICS. The ICS contributed in preventing the ability to collect all information needed in a timely and efficient manner. On the 16 January 2012 my staff e-mail account, which held a large portion of correspondence central to my case was closed, violating the UK Data Protection Act.

On the 24 May 2012, I submitted a pro forma application for adverse academic decision in order to bring about an internal university investigation concerning my situation. The Secretariat responded on the 18 June 2012 indicating that they would investigate my case further.

Nevertheless, the university continued its program of bullying and isolating me. On the15 October 2012, an e-mail was circulated to institute staff and PhD students indicating that should I try to access my office, they should notify university security to have me escorted off the institute’s premises. I had no knowledge of this e-mail until a fellow PhD student informed me of what was written and later handed me a copy of the circulated message. I currently live in university accommodations. How is it acceptable that I be allowed to live in a university flat but not be allowed access to my office and be allowed to keep up with my PhD work and advocate for my case?

Unfortunately during the university’s internal appeal, the committee overseeing my appeal against the ICS conducted a kangaroo court by not allowing a hearing with the ICS. As evident in the e-mail correspondence with the Secretariat in October 2012, I was told that I would be denied a hearing with the committee overseeing my appeal because the evidence I had sent was deemed “comprehensive” and therefore I would not be needed to make any additional comments. This violates my human rights as I am entitled to a hearing in order to (a) present my evidence, (b) hear what evidence the contra-party, i.e. the institute has presented to the committee and (c) be able to defend myself against any accusations.

After much delay, on the 16 April 2013, I received a final decision from the university, which was negative and did not address the finer points of the arguments I have made. Despite the ample evidence that I have provided, the University of Leeds does not wish to remedy the situation at hand, but rather exhaust me out to such a manner that I have no other choice but to leave academia altogether.

Currently, I am waiting to hear from Legal Services Commission (now known as the Legal Aid Agency) to see if I qualify for legal aid in order to (a) get a barrister to advise me on my case, and (b) be able to take this case to court.

It should be stated that I am not the only person who has filed an internal case against the ICS. A PhD student from Thailand filed an internal case against the ICS, for insufficient supervision and for the ICS accepting him onto his PhD course, while knowing all along that he had not passed a University English Language examination and had noticeable problems with his English verbal skills. The University of Leeds found in favor and reimbursed him the full amount of his tuition, £13,700.

I would be grateful for any advice, suggestions, or help that the readers of this blog could give at this time.
Many thanks
Sanaz Raji