Bournemouth academic’s constructive dismissal claim upheld

Institution’s decision to raise marks on failed exam papers ‘an unequivocal affront’ to Paul Buckland’s integrity, Court of Appeal rules. Melanie Newman reports

An academic who claimed constructive dismissal after managers increased the marks on a set of exam papers without his knowledge has won his case in the Court of Appeal.

The court overturned an earlier ruling that Paul Buckland, professor of archaeology at the University of Bournemouth, had not been unfairly dismissed.

The case revolves around a set of exam results dating from 2006, when Professor Buckland failed most of the re-sit candidates.

His marks were approved by Bournemouth’s examination board, but the papers were later revisited and the number of failures reduced.

Brian Astin, chair of the board of examiners, approved the higher marks without consulting Professor Buckland.

After Professor Buckland complained, an internal investigation found that he should have been consulted. However, he subsequently resigned over the matter.

An employment appeal tribunal concluded that because the university’s investigating committee had upheld the academic’s complaint, he was not constructively dismissed.

It said: “The university’s breach was remedied prior to the resignation. The claimant was not dismissed and hence his complaint of unfair dismissal fails.”

Three Court of Appeal judges were unanimous in rejecting the employment appeal tribunal’s findings and reinstating an earlier decision in Professor Buckland’s favour.

They found that the university had undermined him and that by undertaking and accepting the re-marking of the re-sit papers it had caused “an unequivocal affront to his integrity”. The professor’s “sense of grievance… was fully justified”, the judges added.

Bournemouth had committed a fundamental breach of Professor Buckland’s contract, they said. Once a contract is breached, it is for the innocent party to decide whether to resign or accept the guilty party’s attempts to make amends.

The University and College Union supported the professor in his action. Sally Hunt, UCU general secretary, said: “This is an important victory for everyone who values high standards and probity in our universities… However, we are deeply concerned about the events that led to this tribunal. Staff need the confidence to be forthright and honest in their comments and assessment of work.”

Professor Buckland said the verdict “restores the right of individual academics to return marks within the subject in which they are acknowledged experts”.

A spokesman for Bournemouth said the university would not be appealing the verdict.

“The case was primarily concerned not with matters of academic quality but with matters of employment law,” he said.

“The Court of Appeal’s primary finding is that, as a matter of law, there was nothing the university could have done to remedy its breach of contract, no matter how fairly or reasonably it behaved and no matter how unreasonable Professor Buckland may have been in refusing to accept the outcome of the internal inquiry. Naturally, we are disappointed at the court’s judgment.”

melanie.newman@tsleducation.com

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