(In)justice in the University – Daniel K. Sokol

Exam season is well under way at universities across the country. This means that the season for academic and misconduct appeals is imminent. But are universities well prepared for this?

My client failed her PhD. She appealed the decision of the examiners. At the appeal hearing, she was asked to leave the room when the Department presented its case. On her return, she was not allowed to ask any questions. Her appeal was rejected and she complained to the Office of the Independent Adjudicator (OIA), a statutory body that reviews certain decisions made by universities.

The OIA held that the University was wrong to ask the student to leave the room and that she should have had an opportunity to ask questions to the Department. The OIA ordered the University to hold another appeal hearing. At the re-hearing, the student was again not allowed to ask questions. I was so surprised by this that I made a Freedom of Information Act request to identify the training that the three panel members had received. The answer was none. They had one session to familiarise them with the procedure, but no training in conducting student appeals.

This was not the first time I had witnessed poor standards in student appeals. In one memorable appeal, the Chair announced at the outset “we don’t care about the Regulations in this University”. I asked him to repeat that sentence slowly so that I and the minute-taker could write it down. He soon changed his tune.

In another appeal, the Panel asked the student probing questions but accepted, without question, everything that the academics were saying. In a recent case, the Chair asked the student’s PhD supervisor a crucial question: had she warned the student expressly that she might be withdrawn from the course? The supervisor had made no mention of this in either of her two detailed written statements. She paused. Visibly panicked. And eventually answered, in a meek, hesitant voice, “yes”. It was the most unconvincing answer I had heard in thousands of appearances in Court as a barrister. I was expecting the Panel to pounce on her, as they had with the student: “but why is today the first time you’ve said this?”, “why does this important fact not appear in any of your statements?”. But nothing. They accepted the supervisor’s word. The student lost the appeal.

Voltaire allegedly said that ‘common sense is not so common’. While some people ignore the university’s rules, others follow them so slavishly that they lose sight of the bigger picture. In another case, the student was required to submit his essay via the plagiarism software Turnitin and the ‘Virtual Campus’. Half an hour before the submission deadline, neither of these were working. He tried desperately to submit it, photographed screenshots of the error messages, called two tutors (they were out), and eventually e-mailed the essay to the tutors minutes before the deadline. This was all documented. The University deemed his submission late and withdrew him from the university. There is no need to be a judge of the Supreme Court to know what justice requires in this case.

Occasionally, a student’s carefully crafted appeal receives, after many months, a brief pro forma rejection letter which leaves him or her none the wiser as to the reasons for the rejection. The letter contains no more than a banal statement such as ‘after carefully considering your appeal, we have decided to reject it.’ This leaves students feeling that their appeal has been dismissed without proper consideration.

Of course, professional judges also make mistakes, but these are rare, even in the lower courts. Judges in this country were all lawyers prior to sitting on the bench and, acting for both sides over many years, have acquired a sense of what is fair and what is not. Judges also undergo training.

Although some are excellent, the decision-makers who decide the future of students at university are, in my experience, far more prone to error. This is no surprise given the lack or paucity of training. Judging appeals is no easy task, and the stakes are high.

Student journalists should ask their university for full details of the training providing to those reviewing student appeals, including the date, length and content of the training sessions. Universities owe it to students and to the staff appointed to review academic appeals to provide them with proper training and support.

Dr Daniel Sokol is a barrister and medical ethicist. He represents students at academic and misconduct appeals and offers training for university staff involved in such appeals. (http://www.academicappeals.co.uk)

Photo Credit: quinn.anya via Compfight cc

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