My (Unhappy) Experiences as a Postgraduate Student at Portsmouth Polytechnic (or University as it now likes to call itself)

 

Brian Daugherty,

Brian.Daugherty@dunelm.org.uk

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I have the feeling that Portsmouth University have their own ‘defense mechanism’ insofar as their actions are so ridiculous that a third-party might find it hard to believe my accusations. I am sticking by my story anyway.

 

 I did enrol as a Postgraduate Student on a definite Mathematics project at Portsmouth. Yet when I actually arrived in Portsmouth, this project was not available and promises of money were obviously not going to be kept   (note the parallels with the novel The Castle, by Franz Kafka)[a]. I was then transferred to another supervisor who had no experience as a supervisor, and who led me along a dead end, with no contractual agreement given to me as to the aim of this latter project. The project did depend crucially on using Java on the Internet but the University then disabled Java on the Internet, killing my work stone-dead. Despite this they do not want to give me my fees back (which I would suggest they would have had to do, if they were covered by standard consumer law).

List of supporting documents

Introduction

 

I did originally enquire about Postgraduate Courses at Portsmouth in 1991. The relevant person, Professor Matravers, appeared enthusiastic and said he would try to get funding for me (I don’t appear to still have all the relevant letters). Later he said that he had been unable to find any funding, and that it would be best to start me off, for the time being, on a part-time basis, while I was still living in Cardiff.

 

Getting Started

 

The project in Portsmouth formally started in 1992 I do have a  letter from Matravers  from that time which makes definite statements regarding money. In reality, when grant aid became available, I wasn’t even informed of it. (see later)

 

The next year, I got occasional letters from Matravers and I just proceeded to study by myself. After the end of the first year, I received a letter from Matravers  which mentioned visit(s) to Portsmouth.  I never heard anything more about these visits – it was as though he had totally forgotten all about it. .

 

During the year, I had received details of my project in Cosmology [second page  third page  fourth page]. As I found out (much) later, this project was given away to another student, without telling me. I would estimate it was given away within a few months of the aforementioned letter concerning visits to Portsmouth although I didn’t learn about it until much later –  meaning that I spent many hours of my valuable time on subject matter that had actually been given away to someone else.

 

A second supervisor is listed, a Dr. Madsen, who I never met or communicated with, in any way.  I do have an additional note stating that Dr. Madsen had moved but was willing to continue as supervisor[b]. Failing that, it was proposed that the assistant supervisor could be Professor George Ellis of South Africa or some unnamed Professor from Southampton University - obviously nothing became of any of this. While it is usual to enrol at the Open University and be allocated a supervisor at another University, that is specifically for the purposes of producing a supervisor closer to the student’s home – but is it usual to enrol at a conventional University and then have a supervisor at a totally different University, and if so, would that include the possibility of having a supervisor the other side of the world, in South Africa?.

 

Going back to the original details of my project, I notice that Matravers is stated as having supervised two previous Ph.D students, although I am not sure that this accurate – there is a suspicion that this should refer to M.Sc. students. The name Bernie Higgins appears for no reason whatsoever – he was not a supervisor of mine. Are there grounds for being deceived here – I would have thought that the title of Professor would have been inappropriate for someone who has only supervised two research students. But if my suspicions are right and he had previously supervised no research students at all, surely there are grounds for ‘deception’[c].

 

Move to Portsmouth

 

In October 1996, I did physically move to Portsmouth. Matravers expressed no ‘opposition’ to this move, despite the previously-mentioned facts about my project already having been transferred to someone else, a fact which became obvious to me fairly soon after my arrival. The unexpected situation I had fallen into  was really brought home to me when a grant became available only a couple of months later.   

 

A grant had become available and this fact was openly discussed in my presence, as though it was taken as read that it was of no relevance to me (despite Matravers' previous letter). In the end, they did grudgingly allow an application from me, but did not shortlist me. In fact, shortly after I had applied,  another (newer) Professor,  Roy Maartens, who knew next to nothing about me, was asking me whether I wanted to work in a computing job he knew of, in Liphook (as though announcing immediately that my application had no chance).  Maartens had earlier suggested that I should apply for a grant to study in the area of Mathematical Education, as though all the time I had spent specifically studying Applied Mathematics (and achieving first-class marks in Relativity) meant that I really wanted to study Mathematical Education instead of Applied Mathematics.

 

Matravers didn’t even bother to inform me of my rejection verbally, even though we had a formal meeting on the day prior to me receiving a letter of rejection. Strangely, despite this, Matravers and Maartens[d] seemed to think that everything would just go on as before . This left me in rather an unenviable position,  with staff who thought I was third-rate, expressing low-expectations of me, and me with no money to go anywhere else. Since my original project had been given to someone else, I was been given various ad-hoc bits to do. The first ‘project’ on particles orbiting galaxies had no chance of becoming an acceptable Ph.D project (I was never given anything in writing about this project). Alternatives were produced (with no confirmation of these projects in writing) and I doubt whether any ad-hoc projects of this form had any real chance of getting me a postgraduate qualification.

 

It was certainly an unpleasant experience working in an atmosphere of constant expression of low expectations. In reality, if there is one thing I can do, it is Mathematics (as I detail further down). This was compounded by the extremely low standards of knowledge expressed by one or two members of staff. At least a few times, my totally-correct mathematical calculations would be subject to derision from someone who couldn’t tell me where I had ‘gone wrong’. This becomes quite soul-destroying after a while[e].

 

At one lecture I did give on my personal work at Portsmouth, the only feedback I received from anyone present was a statement, given in public, by one of the ‘audience’ :-

 

                                         “I don’t think you know  what you are doing”

 

No-one gave me any specific reasons where I was going wrong, which leads me to believe that the only person who didn’t ‘know what they were doing’ was the person who made the above statement. But certainly no-one informed me that this person’s assessment was wrong - apparently it was perfectly alright to treat me like that[f].

 

Change of Project (and Supervisor)

 

Things came to a head at a  meeting with Matravers in January 1998 when I was ‘requested’ to join the Mathematical Education Group, which I had no choice but to do (short of leaving all together). Various statements were made, including the clear statement that I could still follow a career in General Relativity (which was absolute rubbish). And, above all, no-one told me that no ‘real’ Mathematics would be involved. - in reality, during my time in the Education group, the amount of Advanced Mathematics encountered has been effectively zero, as has actually been the amount of research. (Maartens had earlier tried to point me towards this dead-end , about one month after I had arrived in Portsmouth, as I have already stated)

 

It was in January 1998 that this ‘transfer’ from the Cosmology Group took place but I did receive a letter from Matravers in August 1998,  ‘throwing me’ out of the Cosmology Group (in consultation with Maartens). This was followed by a meeting with Matravers during which he acted as though the previous  meeting in January had never taken place[g].

 

The implication is that  Matravers / Maartens[h] still thought that, for the previous seven months, I had still been working in the Cosmology Group – but during this 7 month period neither of them had made any attempt whatsoever to contact me.

 

So anyway I had been transferred to M. McCabe, who also has never supervised any research students before. After a couple of years he suddenly turned around and effectively told me that he wanted to call a halt to the project because he had no experience of supervising projects of this type, and that would therefore be the end of my Portsmouth connection[i]. No written details of my project in Mathematical Education was ever given to me.

 

Yearly reports had to be made about my progress, and none of these reports expressed any adverse criticism of my progress.

 

As a possible indication of the level of supervision and honesty I received during my time in the Mathematical Education Group, I have attached a copy of a written proposal from M. McCabe for a ITL grant, which states that I would be employed on a job worth £15,000 if the proposal was successful (my name is not explicitly stated, but it is unambiguous as to who is meant). Given my dire financial situation, it is hard to put into words how much this work would have meant to me. The proposal was successful but the work never materialised (hardly the first time that I have been given promises of money, only for it to turn out to be false, see above).

 

I did request assistance with this matter from the AUT (Association of University Teachers). I was directed to

 

·         their representative Max Bramer[j] who ignored me,

·         so I contacted their representative at the regional office, Christine Cheeseman, who told me she would look into it, but then ignored me

 

before finally, after a year, another representative, Hugh Mason, kindly took things a bit more seriously and told me that the legal situation is that nothing can be done in situations like this unless a contract has been formally signed.

 

 

The Finish

 

At the end, there was a ‘double whammy’ in that, despite my so-called ‘research’ being heavily involved with Java applets on the Internet, Java applets on the Internet were disabled by the University thus killing my work stone-dead (and to add insult to injury, this step was carried out without anyone telling me – at one stage I was enquiring from Question Mark Ltd as to why these Java programs wouldn’t work, because I thought it was something wrong with their software.)  I enclose a copy of an  email from the Computing Section containing a gobbledygook response to my enquiry about the situation.

 

I could add that, prior to this, the JBuilder program that I had been using to write these Java applets was taken off the University system, despite me making clear it that I was using it. 

 

Surely this disabling of Java and resultant ending of my project would, purely by itself, entitle me to claim back my £3,000  fees, if Universities were operating under the same rules that commercial companies have to obey.

 

Details of my attempts to get my £3,000  back on this point are detailed here

The Finish – Loose Endsl

 

Although my project was effectively ended by then, certain loose-ends did continue to unroll slowly. From the submission of my Transfer Report (i.e. the report required to be awarded an M.Phil and thus formally be transferred to a Ph.D program) to the time that it was actually considered took one year[k].  This is obviously far too long, but again at times, I was led to believe that it was my own fault. McCabe, at one stage, took the opportunity of shouting at me – but that was basically because he knew little about postgraduate research (as I have already stated) rather than it actually truly being my fault.

 

Another indication of the supervision I was getting was that, despite me telling McCabe[l] that Java had been disabled, he obviously took no notice of me. He continued to talk as though the project could proceed as before, and it wouldn’t surprise me at all if he still is unaware that Java has vanished[m].

 

The actual Transfer Meeting did still occur, but took place suddenly – I was not even aware that it was taking place until I got there – I assumed I was due to get some sort of ‘bollocking’ from the Head of Department over an initial version of some of the aforementioned accusations that I had sent in[n]. Anyway this Transfer Meeting was chaired by the Head of Department, Steve Hand, who announced that he had not read my Report fully, but was going to give a judgement on it anyway.

 

The judgement was that it needed more work before and that it should then be re-presented in a couple of months – except that since Java had now been disabled, any further work was out of the question, as the powers-to-be should have known by then, but obviously hadn’t (McCabe was present at this Transfer Meeting).

 

(The whole thing would be ridiculous anyway - since I have done no research, and no mathematics, it would be therefore be rather over-the-top to be awarded a Research degree, i.e. M.Phil., in Mathematics.)

 

Note on Access to University

 

The way I have been treated runs directly counter to the newly-found enthusiasm in some quarters for better access to University. I had to finance myself thru three years of University, something which automatically lowered the results I was able to achieve for my first degree. It became a bit like the Kenny Everett quiz where you have to score 31 points to win, and you play by answering three questions, each worth a maximum of ten points.  Nevertheless, I can produce some evidence that I was capable of better results – for example.

 

·         I took my O-Levels at the age of 15

·         As a mature student, I studied full-time for a BTEC Certificate in Technology (rather than A-Levels). Although this  (like A-Levels) was a two-year course, I graduated after one year to study Engineering at Cardiff University with a mark in Mathematics of 98% (it was when I later decided to change from Engineering to Maths that my (largely unexpected) problems started).

·          

·         Although I left Newcastle with effectively no qualifications, I did obtain first class level results in Relativity, which is the subject of main relevance to my ‘initial’ project at Portsmouth.

 

·         Within three years of completing my first degree, I was working as a lecturer with the Open University on a second-level Mathematics course.

 

This must surely be worthy of consideration in line with the new-found ideas of ‘Access’, but I have found the reality in Portsmouth to be that these ideas of ‘Access’ find no followers whatsoever[o]. The prevailing idea is that idea that I have encountered all my academic life[p]

 

Results are not influenced by lack of income; results achieved by students are the results they would achieve no matter how much money they had coming in[q]

 

General Comments

 

·         You might legitimately ask why I didn’t realise before now – well people like me don’t have any great choice in things, we have to take what we can[r]. There was definitely a time in my life when I would never have believed that I could be treated in this manner by other people.

 

·         I remember my staff tutor at the Open University once relating that he had heard about a student who only saw his supervisor about once a year, which he declared to be an absolute scandal. Well my second meeting with my supervisor was 2 years and 8 months after the first, and the third was 18 months later again

 

 

·         As an additional note on Matravers'  research record, A fellow postgraduate student, Kevin Johnson, appears also to have also received less than satisfactory service. He was actually a full-time student, but in his three years, he claims to have had only six meetings with his supervisor, who initially was Abdul Charaffi; but after his sterling performance, this supervisor role was taken over by Matravers. (This point is rather anecdotal, but is worth investigating)

 

·         Given the South African influence, I can’t but help wondering how far right-wing South African ideas have prevailed here, over-riding standard British ways of doing things.

 

Brian Daugherty, 55 Victoria Road North, Portsmouth, PO5 1PW                bd25@tutor.open.ac.uk       

 

 



[a] And also very similar to the case of Kevin Wilkinson who arrived at Aston University, after giving up his job in Dubai, to find that his promised project was not available. This has resulting in court actions, with Cherie Booth acting for Kevin Wilkinson. Before these court actions started, Aston University at least apologized for this state of affairs and admitted a certain amount of liability.

[b] I should add that I have been unable to trace Dr. Madsen’s whereabouts  to ask him about this state of affairs.

 

[c] The adjective ‘tinpot’, sometimes used to describe Universities in the past, springs to mind here

[d] according to Maartens, my application suffered fatally because I didn’t give ‘much detail’ of my time at Durham. In reality, after leaving Newcastle University with no qualifications, the only way I could proceed to a Ph.D was to study for an M.Sc. Since I had no money, I had to stay in Newcastle and Durham University was therefore the only option, despite the fact that I was not really qualified for their course. Their course was based on Quantum Mechanics which was not a subject that Newcastle taught at all. So Maartens placed great reliance on a course where a) I was spiraling into full-scale lifetime debt and b) I was not really qualified to study it. So Martens placed great importance on a course where it was impossible for me to achieve anything brilliant.

[e] Especially when ‘Status-Determined Justice’ comes into play. I could add that although these low standards was far from being universal, it says something about the ‘tinpot’ nature of institutions which will employ people of this low caliber.

[f] I was still trying over a year later to get an explanation of why I ‘didn’t know what I was doing’, without success

[g] Which leads me to make the expected step and wonder whether Matravers is suffering from some sort of ‘mental loss disorder’.  i.e. a medical condition. While this is not a state of affairs to be celebrated, it is unfair to me – if you have definite information confirming this line of thought, you would be doing me great favour by letting me know in some way.

[h] A person, who is nice to you, but rude to a waiter, is not a nice person. (This is very important. Pay attention. It never fails.)  In a similar vein: during the London bombings of 7 July 2005, I was listening to how the bombers were ‘really nice people’ etc. etc.  – I was half expecting to hear claims that these people therefore could not possibly have carried out these bombings because ‘they were not that sort of person’. Another example – Werner von Braun, who always seems to be described in very positive terms. But he worked in an organization which at one end was producing death via advanced weaponry and the other end causing five-figure deaths by using slave labor from concentration camps.  Latterly Slobodan Milosevic appears to have joined this ‘pantheon’ in a similar way.

[i] Although, as detailed lower down, another event had already happened which would have meant the end of my work at Portsmouth without anything else happening.

[j] I was told by the AUT branch to contact either Max Bramer from the Computing Dept or Lynn Pevy from the Maths Dept, both of them too close to McCabe, I thought, and therefore not a good choice, but that’s who they told me to contact nevertheless.

[k] And so obviously, by the time it was considered, it had been overtaken by  events, namely disabling of Java on the University Internet.

[l] A person, who is nice to you, but rude to a waiter, is not a nice person. (This is very important. Pay attention. It never fails.) 

[m] An encounter in October 2005 still leads me to believe that he doesn’t know what is going on. He acted as though he is totally unaware of the statements I am making in this document as though nothing untoward has occurred.

[n] For the benefit of non-British people, I should say that criticizing the standards of a University, in any way, is considered a serious event in British Universities, even if these criticisms are verifiably correct..

[o] If you want to be pedantic, I know of one lecturer from Portsmouth, John Bradbeer, who publicly states that lack of income reduces grades, but he seems to be the exception that proves the rule. Certainly in the Maths Department of Portsmouth Polytechnic, postgraduate students are predominantly from the more wealthy end of the population.

[p] Latterly, I have come to learn of a certain prejudice against Liverpudlians, of which I have never previously been aware. As far as I can make out, this implies that we, for some unknown reason, actually enjoy living in poverty.

[q] Said by people who are smug, complacent and cocooned from reality.

[r] Exaggerated at times by a ‘tame’ attitude inherited from the way I have been treated  in the past, even as far back as the time I was living in Liverpool, and various members of Liverpool Education Department voiced disbelief that I could ever get to University (or even study to A-Level standard).