CASE STUDY: Success for Tanya Thomas in autistic student university discrimination case

7 September 2023

Hiring an expert education lawyer proved the right choice for an autistic student when the Office of the Independent Adjudicator for Higher Education (OIA) determined that a well-known university had been discriminatory towards him. 

The client, a student with a complex and severe autistic spectrum condition, had been studying for a pharmacy degree at the university in question. He had been subjected to a complex fitness to practice case in 2022.  

As a result of the university’s actions, the student had been facing both termination of his place at university and the prospect of never being able to acquire formal registration with the General Pharmaceutical Council (GPhC), essential for him to achieve his career aspirations. 

Client felt let down after being told to “consider another career”  

Prior to contacting us, the client had tried consulting the Pharmacists’ Defence Association but was advised to “consider another career”.  

Fortunately, the client hired Tanya Thomas, an experienced Higher Education solicitor at Spencer West, who has helped hundreds of students, including those with undiagnosed or ‘hidden’ disabilities. 

The university had subjected the client to the fitness to practice procedure previously. He appealed on the grounds of a procedural irregularity and his appeal was upheld. The case went back to be heard and new allegations were raised by the university, all of which were inextricably linked to his disabilities. The university won this appeal, stating that they had taken his disabilities into consideration, which they had not.  

Wanting the right outcome for her client, Tanya knew to submit a complaint to the OIA. The OIA found the defects were overt and contacted the university to propose that they should settle in the first instance. The university refused to do so, insisting they had followed procedures and had done nothing wrong. 

A successful outcome 

The OIA took the client’s disabilities into account and were able to prioritise the case to ensure an outcome in record time. They partially upheld the complaint and the university’s decision to terminate him and to prevent his registration for all time with the GPhC was set aside. 

Whilst there are still some hurdles to overcome, going forwards the university must now follow the recommendations of the OIA which are: 

  • To provide the client with an Occupational Health assessment which they must fund. 
  • Occupational Health to provide a support plan for him.
  • That the fitness to practise hearing is to be re-heard with the option of a fresh panel and must include the full OIA outcome detailing discrimination and the full OH report and support plan.
  • Assurance that the OIA will review any further decision by the university to remove him from the course.
  • That the university reviews its fitness to practise procedures, to include the need for OH assessments in the future.
  • That the client receives a lump sum payment for distress caused.  

Tanya’s expertise, knowledge and experience, particularly in regard to her complaints training with the OIA, and prior role drafting regulations to meet the OIA Good Practice Framework for a Russell Group University, meant that the client could rest assured his complex case would be dealt with successfully. 

Recommendations to support and safeguard future students 

The recommendations from the OIA will provide the client with safeguards, especially where before the university had a history of poor management and support in relation to his disability. 

The outcome also ensures that current and future students should not have to endure the same discrimination. 

Tanya’s client JC said “Tanya has been very supportive and helpful. Even when the Pharmacists’ Defence Association told me to ‘’consider another career’’, Tanya persevered and was successful with the Office of the Independent Adjudicator for Higher Education.  

Speaking about the outcome, he went on to say: “Now, we just have to ensure the University follows through on the recommendations made. I have autism spectrum condition, and, as I’m sure everyone with a ‘hidden’ disability will understand, it’s not easy to get authorities such as Universities to understand the problems you can face.” 

Using her experience and determination to achieve the right outcome for her client Tanya said: “All in all, quite a result and about time that particularly university was pulled up on its blatant discrimination towards disabled students.”

Tanya Thomas
Partner - Education Law
Tanya Thomas is a Partner Solicitor at Spencer West. She specialises in Education law; Higher Education; fitness to practise proceedings, academic appeals, disciplinary hearings, extenuating circumstances, appeals against withdrawal, PhD supervision, OIA and any other procedural irregularities covering students.