By Conor Brummell
A PhD student in NUI Galway has been awarded €13,505 after he took action against the University due to a delay in the scheduling of his final viva exam.
Isaac Burke from Castlebar, County Mayo brought legal action against the University when the delay in scheduling postponed his graduation and damaged his employment prospects as a result.
The case was overseen by Judge Raymond Groarke at the Galway Circuit Civil Court, and Burke won the case on the basis that there was a breach of contract between Burke and NUI Galway when his final exam was delayed.
According to NUI Galway’s Postgraduate Guidelines and Regulations, a viva exam is an oral exam which must be held within two months after a PhD student submits their thesis. The Court heard evidence of Mr Burke’s ‘hurt’ and ‘confusion’, when Dr Emil Skoldberg failed in his duty as lead supervisor to schedule Mr Burke’s examination with an external examiner, after he submitted his thesis on January 31, 2017.
Mr Burke told the Court that he had become increasingly concerned about the lack of communication from Dr Skoldberg, whom he had enjoyed a good relationship with throughout the course of his PhD. Dr Skoldberg gave evidence at the hearing, admitting that he had failed in his duty as supervisor and had not opened emails sent by Mr Burke due to “personal difficulties”.
Under cross-examination, Dr Emil Skoldberg told the court that the fact he hadn’t arranged Mr Burke’s viva exam was “weighing” on him. “I should have been able to do it. I should have gotten over the hump”, he said.
He also told the court that when he met Mr Burke in the corridor in June 2017, he was “embarrassed” that he had not organised the exam. Dr Skoldberg recalled that Burke had been understanding and said he would not mind, as long as he could graduate in the Autumn.
However, the lecturer took a six-month long sabbatical on July 1st, 2017 without making the necessary prior arrangements with relation to the PhD student’s circumstances. Mr. Burke had not heard from his supervisor in months and was at his “wit’s end”. He told the court that he broke down in front of his mother due to the anxieties relating to his PhD.
Martina Burke, Mr Burke’s mother, then told the court that she proceeded to contact the head of the department, Professor Graham Ellis. A difficult conversation between the two ended in an argument where Mr Eilis told Martina that Mr Burke needed a ‘kick in the ass’ for not raising his problems with the department sooner.
A ‘viva’ exam was then arranged for November 2017, following efforts made by Professor Ellis. However, Burke did not accept this offer, and to this day has not completed his exam and thus not been conferred with his doctorate.
Judge Groarke found in favour of Mr Burke and awarded damages relating to loss of earnings due to breach of contract.