Many students who are appealing a university’s decision fail to do themselves justice at the oral academic appeal hearing. Dr Daniel Sokol gives 10 tips on how to represent yourself at these important hearings.
1. Know the format of the academic appeal hearing
The secret to a successful appeal hearing is preparation – knowing the facts of your case, the relevant rules and regulations, the strengths and weaknesses of your arguments and the University’s arguments – but it is difficult to prepare if you do not know the format of the hearing.
If not available, ask for details of the format. Will you be given an opportunity to present your case? Will the Department give evidence? Will you be able to ask questions to the Department’s representatives? Will you be able to make some concluding remarks on the case?
If the agreed format is not followed by the Appeal Panel, politely point this out.
2. If permitted, prepare a written document in advance
Often, you will have an opportunity to provide a written document in advance of the hearing. Unless your case is straightforward, it is usually a good idea to do so. This document, called a ‘skeleton argument’, should summarise your key arguments in a few pages. It should be factually accurate, fair, persuasive, and helpful to the Appeal Panel.
Do not assume that the Panel will be familiar with the intricacies of your case, or the minutiae of the university regulations.
Make sure you send the document in advance and bring spare copies with you.
3. Anticipate questions from Panel
Put yourself in the position of a Panel member and try to identify weaknesses in your case. If you say you were unwell at the time of the assessments but failed to inform the university, you will almost certainly be asked why you withheld that information from the university authorities.
In your preparation, write down a list of possible questions, including ones you consider the most ‘difficult’.
4. Prepare responses to Panel’s questions
Armed with the list of questions, prepare answers that are helpful to your case, or that minimise the damage to your case, but remember always to be honest. Credibility is key.
This is harder than it sounds. Listen carefully to the questions of the Panel. They are insights into their thinking.
Listen also to the submissions of the Department’s representative, and note down any factual inaccuracies and responses to his or her points.
When it is your turn to speak, or if you have an opportunity to ask questions, you can then use those notes:
“Dr Jones, you said just now that I never contacted my personal tutor about my illness, but I’ve provided evidence of an e-mail dated 12th December 2014 in which I told my tutor that I was feeling unwell. Could you please comment on that?”
Always be ready for the question “where does it say that?”, so make sure you have the document at hand and that you can locate it easily.
6. Prepare questions to ask the ‘other side’
Some of these questions can be prepared in advance, others will emerge as the hearing progresses. You must challenge information that you believe is inaccurate or misleading otherwise the Panel may accept that evidence to your detriment.
7. Prepare closing remarks
If the format allows some closing remarks, prepare a few lines. Do not go through the arguments again, but briefly tell the Panel how important this matter is to you and thank them for their time.
8. Be polite
Always be courteous to the Panel and whoever else is in the room. If the Department’s representative says something you consider outrageous, note it down and address this calmly in your response.
9. Bring someone with you
You will be invited to bring someone along. Do so, even if it is only a friend. Aside from providing support in what is usually an intimidating environment, he or she will alter the atmosphere of the hearing. That person is also a potential witness if the hearing is conducted improperly.
10. If permitted, consider skilled representation
Some universities allow representation at the hearing, whether by someone from the Student Union or a lawyer.
Given the importance of the appeal to your future, carefully consider seeking the services of such a representative. He or she may have attended dozens of appeal hearings, and can help you write the skeleton argument, prepare you for the hearing, make persuasive arguments on your behalf, and identify any procedural irregularities with the conduct of the hearing.
Representative or not, remember the three key words to a successful hearing: preparation, preparation, preparation.
Dr Daniel Sokol is a practising barrister specialising in education law and a former university lecturer. He is lead adviser at Alpha Academic Appeals (http://www.academicappeals.co.uk)