Lecturer’s dismissal for failing to complete PhD ‘unfair’, tribunal rules

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A university lecturer who lost his job because he was unable to complete a PhD as he had concerns for his mental health was unfairly dismissed, an employment tribunal has found.

Jonathan Duxbury began his role as a senior lecturer in the accountancy, finance and economics department at the University of Huddersfield in 2005. While he did not hold a PhD, he has a professional qualification in accountancy and is a fellow of the Association of Chartered Certified Accountants.

In 2013 the university introduced a requirement for all academics at his level to have a PhD. He enrolled in doctoral study the following year, but in 2015 his line manager recommended he visit his GP as he was showing signs of stress at work.

Duxbury told his GP he felt overworked and that this employer’s expectations of him were unrealistic. He felt that the PhD work was having a negative impact on his mental health.

His line manager and occupational health agreed that his PhD work should be suspended for an academic year. However, in the autumn of 2016, after the suspension had ended, Duxbury did not re-enrol onto his studies.

The university conducted an investigation in 2017. Duxbury was informed that there would be no additional hours allocated for him to undertake his PhD, despite his concerns that he could not complete the work during his contracted hours.

In November 2017 he received a first written warning and in April 2018 a final written warning with an instruction to resume studies by 31 May 2018.

Duxbury launched an appeal against the final written warning, which was rejected in October 2018 with a renewed direction to enrol on PhD studies by 31 December 2018.

In October 2018 he was diagnosed with work-related stress. He also reported chronic sleep deprivation, problems with memory and having to galvanise himself for social interaction.

He took a period of sick leave and attended an occupational health assessment in January 2019. He also attended counselling and cognitive behavioural therapy sessions.

The GP provided fit notes continually until 30 May 2019, when a last fit note advised the claimant he may be fit for work with a phased return and altered duties. Duxbury told his GP that he felt better able to handle pressure at work.

He returned in June 2019 and was given a new deadline to re-enrol later that month. He was dismissed in early 2020 after failing to complete his PhD studies.

Duxbury lodged a claim for unfair dismissal at the Leeds employment tribunal.

Investigation shortcomings

The tribunal found there had been shortcomings in the university’s disciplinary investigation and said that it did not act reasonably when it dismissed the claimant. It said the first and final warnings were “manifestly unjust”, considering the requirement for him to work beyond his contracted hours in order to complete the PhD.

In a judgment issued last week, employment judge Joanna Wade said: “In our judgment requiring PhD study and completion was undoubtedly a change to the claimant’s contract of employment, or to put it in another way, it was outwith his contract.

“It could reasonably have provided in writing an average weekly allowance out of the 39 contractual hours, or annualised allowance which had to be protected for PhD study. The claimant acted with integrity throughout: he was not prepared to enrol for study which, without being provided with sufficient hours, be believed would further damage his health. It is no answer to that to say, ‘just enrol’, then we will discuss the measures in place. That approach was entirely outside the band of reasonable responses.”

Little career benefit

Duxbury said: “[The PhD requirement] made no sense. The students had always been happy with my teaching and I saw no benefit for anyone in me taking on such an onerous course, especially when – as I am in my 50s – it was going to have little standing on my future career prospects.

“I’ve managed to get a job lecturing part-time at another university and I feel my confidence is starting to improve again. But for years, I was subject to a number of demoralising disciplinary procedures that stemmed solely from me raising what was a legitimate issue.”

The students had always been happy with my teaching and I saw no benefit for anyone in me taking on such an onerous course, especially when – as I am in my 50s – it was going to have little standing on my future career prospects” – Jonathan Duxbury

Iain Birrell, a trade union law specialist at Thompsons Solicitors, which represented Duxbury, said: “This judgment is vindication for Mr Duxbury. An issue that could have been resolved with a reasonable concession from his employer when he first raised concerns in 2014 ended up becoming a battle of attrition that benefitted no one.

“The judge in the hearing said herself that Mr Duxbury had acted with integrity, while the university had been ‘wholly unreasonable’ with a ‘closed mind’ to Mr Duxbury’s reasonable expectation that his health would be considered and measures put in place to protect it.”

A spokesperson for the University of Huddersfield said: “The outcome of this tribunal relates to the circumstances of one member of staff. The tribunal judgment made reference to the university being entitled to introduce policies that develop the staff and student experience and the introduction of the doctoral study requirement was considered reasonable.”

Duxbury also made a claim for indirect discrimination, as he believed the university’s policy requiring academic to have a PhD was more difficult for older workers. However, the tribunal felt that over 50s were not at a disadvantage and dismissed this claim.

Compensation for Duxbury will be considered in a hearing at a later date.

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