OIA Rules allow for information to be published about the way named providers have handled student complaints, where this is in the public interest as defined in the Scheme Rules. Neither the OIA nor the provider will identify the student.
Cases for publication by provider name must have been received by the OIA on or after 1 April 2012 and must be closed. The OIA will publish relevant cases at regular intervals.
February 2017 - Cases involving possible criminal proceedings
A student at Cardiff University complained to the OIA about the University’s decision to dismiss his appeal against his expulsion on disciplinary grounds.
The University temporarily suspended the student under its disciplinary procedures after he was arrested by the police for various offences against other students. The student appealed against the suspension and the University agreed to vary its terms so that he could sit his end of year assessments. The student was later convicted of five counts of sexual assault and securing unauthorised access to computer material. He was sentenced to a Community Order and required to sign the Sex Offender’s register. The University subsequently pursued a disciplinary case against the student and decided that he should be expelled as his behaviour had breached the University’s disciplinary procedures. The University dismissed the student’s appeal against that decision.
The OIA criticised the University for some elements of its handling of the case, in particular its failure to properly explain aspects of its decision-making relating to whether the student had demonstrated insight into his actions. However, with the exception of this point, the OIA considered that the remainder of the University’s decision letter contained clear reasoning, supported by evidence in relation to its decision and was satisfied that the decision to expel the student was reasonable and proportionate. The convictions were serious and directly impacted on the University community, the student’s Probation Officer had indicated that the risk of him causing serious harm to others would likely be assessed as high if he returned to the University, there was an identified risk to adult females around the student’s age and the University could not ensure compliance with the Probation Officer’s recommendation that he should reside in single-sex accommodation.
The OIA therefore concluded that the complaint was Not Justified, but made some suggestions to the University in terms of explaining the reasons for its decisions and introducing a ground for appeal to allow a student to challenge the penalty imposed under its disciplinary procedures.
University of Surrey
A student at the University of Surrey complained to the OIA following her appeal against the process and outcome of disciplinary proceedings.
The student was one of two students who were disciplined by the University following an altercation between them. The student who complained to the OIA was found guilty by the University of the use of offensive language prior to the altercation. She was injured in the incident and the police were called and carried out an investigation.
We decided that one aspect of the complaint was Justified. The student had requested information about the outcome of disciplinary proceedings against the other student and in particular to be told if the other student had been expelled from the campus. The University declined to provide this information, citing data protection law. However, it could not demonstrate that it considered departing from its usual practice of keeping such information confidential, whether medical evidence about the impact on the first student’s mental health indicated that some disclosure would be appropriate, or whether it should ask the other student’s permission to disclose the information. Nor did the University explain to the first student why it had decided not to disclose the information to her.
The OIA concluded that this was not reasonable in the circumstances of the case. We recommended that the University apologise and pay compensation for distress and inconvenience.
Birmingham City University
A student at Birmingham City University complained to the OIA after the University rejected an appeal against its decision to exclude him.
The University started disciplinary proceedings when it came to light that the student had not disclosed details of an unspent criminal conviction in his application. Following an investigation of the facts the case was referred to a Student Disciplinary Panel. This concluded that the student had breached the University’s disciplinary procedure and decided to exclude him. The University made adjustments to the way it ran the panel to enable the student to comment on the information in his absence due to imprisonment for a further criminal offence.
The OIA was satisfied that the University followed a fair process and that the penalty was proportionate to the facts of the case and within the range of penalties available. The evidence available to the University demonstrated that the student knew his conviction was unspent at the time of the application, had sought advice as to the status of his conviction and its relevance to the application and decided not to disclose it.
The OIA decided the complaint was Not Justified
February 2017 - Competence standards
Oxford Brookes University
A student complained to the OIA about the University’s decision on a number of matters including the provision of reasonable adjustments.
The student had a diagnosed anxiety disorder and submitted a successful mitigating circumstances claim relating to exams and coursework. An alternative to a timed examination was not offered.
The course handbook did not state that timed, unseen examinations are directly linked to a competence standard for the programme. The University explained to the OIA that the aim was ‘to assess students’ ability to think about which techniques to apply to a problem, rather than their research skills in looking for a technique to solve a question’. It had been considering ways of finding out what the student could do without reference materials but had not found an alternative to exams, presentations or vivas by the time the student left the University.
The OIA was concerned that the University had not demonstrated that the formal, timed, unseen examination format was itself testing a genuine competence standard that could not be tested in other ways. We were also concerned by an internal email that expressed reluctance to make adjustments for this student as that would disadvantage other students. The Equality Act does not prevent universities from treating disabled students more favourably than other students in order to remove a disadvantage.
The OIA decided that this element of the student’s complaint was Justified and recommended compensation for distress and inconvenience. Her overall complaint was Partly Justified as we considered the University had acted reasonably on the other issues she raised.
University of Southampton
A medical student at the University of Southampton submitted a successful academic appeal to the University against her deregistration from the programme. The University gave her the opportunity to resit the year but she failed the Objective Structured Clinical Examination (OSCE) and was unable to progress. She complained to the OIA after the University refused her appeal to be allowed extra time for the OSCE as a reasonable adjustment for disability.
The requirements of the course were clearly set out and did not permit the student to progress without completing the OSCE. The ability to complete OCSE stations within a specified time is widely accepted to be a competence standard and the University’s documentation explains that this is because the replication of clinical practice is central to the assessment.
The OIA decided that the University had acted reasonably in the circumstances and that the complaint was Not Justified.
Queen Mary University of London
A medical student at Queen Mary University of London complained to the OIA after the University turned down her appeal against being deregistered from the course.
The University provided a number of adjustments for the student following a needs assessment. It required her to pass one examination that was based on visual interpretation of x-rays as it considered that “image recognition is a key competency standard for a medical doctors“. The student provided medical evidence to her appeal that she may have been disadvantaged by the visual nature of the assessment. However the duty to provide adjustments does not apply to a competence standard.
The OIA decided the complaint was Not Justified. The University was able to demonstrate that it gave sufficient consideration to the student’s circumstances and made adjustments to support her by allowing her extra time. However its professional judgment was that it was not possible to change the format of the assessment as it was intended to assess visual processing.
University of Sussex
The Student Support Unit (SSU) at the University of Sussex sought additional reasonable adjustments to a disabled student’s examinations following an injury unrelated to her disability. The Reasonable Adjustments Panel agreed to replace two examinations with essays in her second year. However, when the student asked for the same adjustments in her final year, the Panel did not agree. It stated that ‘academic standards could not be secured’ in the student’s subject area if all examinations were replaced, and offered instead to arrange for assessment to be via a larger number of shorter examinations. The University turned down the student’s appeal against this decision. The student temporarily withdrew from her studies.
The student complained to the OIA about the decision to turn down her appeal. As part of our review the OIA looked for information on which the Panel had based its view that ‘academic standards could not be secured’ if the changes requested were made. We saw correspondence from the Deputy Chair of the Exam Board that essays had been used successfully in the same academic school, giving an indication that examinations were not always considered a competency standard by the school or the exam board.
The OIA decided that the Panel’s decision was not reasonable in all the circumstances and that the student’s complaint was Justified. We recommended that the University set up a new panel, apologise to the student, refund fees and make a payment to the student for distress and inconvenience. The University notified us that the new Panel agreed to offer an alternative means of assessment to the student. The University implemented changes to its processes following the OIA’s decision to ensure that the Reasonable Adjustments Panel receives relevant information about a student’s change
February 2017 - Other disciplinary cases
University of Essex
A student at the University of Essex complained to the OIA after his appeal against a finding that he had breached the University’s No Smoking Policy was rejected.
The student was resident in University-managed accommodation and lived in a flat that accommodated 13 first year students. University staff had found ash and cigarette butts in the kitchen of the students’ flat. The flat’s residents had previously been sent warning letters following two similar incidents.
The later incident was investigated by the University in accordance with its disciplinary procedures. During its investigations, the University considered photographs of ash and cigarette butts in the kitchen; a report from the accommodation house keeping services; and minutes of a meeting which took place between six of the flat’s residents (the remaining residents failed to attend that meeting and a subsequent meeting that was arranged to discuss the incident). The University found that no information had been provided by any resident of the flat to suggest who was responsible. Based on the evidence available at the time, the University found all residents jointly culpable.
The student appealed stating that he did not know who the culprit was, and did not smoke himself. The appeal was rejected by the University on the basis that the nature and level of the fine imposed (£25) was reasonable and in accordance with accepted practice and precedent.
The OIA found the student’s complaint Justified. We reviewed the Regulations which set out that students were responsible for their own actions, and the actions of invited guests. We determined that the University’s investigation was insufficiently thorough, and the evidence considered during the investigation did not support a conclusion, on balance, that the student, or his invited guests, had breached the University’s No Smoking Policy.
We recommended that the University should quash the decision that the student had breached the University’s No Smoking Policy and should refund the £25 fine. We also recommended that the University reviews its policies and procedures regarding its No Smoking Policy and related disciplinary procedures, with a view to ensuring procedural fairness for students while addressing any safety concerns.
University of Gloucestershire
The OIA identified a number of procedural errors in the University of Gloucestershire’s management of a student disciplinary case.
The University investigated the student’s conduct on a field trip, which she had joined to participate in laboratory work but was restricted from entering the field on health and safety grounds following surgery.
After the field trip the University wrote to the student to tell her that investigative procedures would be instigated in relation to an allegation of misconduct. The University did not notify the student informally before it sent the letter. The letter, and a second letter, did not specify the allegation against her. The student first learned of this when she attended the investigatory interview. We concluded that it would have been good practice to provide the student with copies of the written evidence before the interview and that failure to do this would have put her at a disadvantage.
Following the interview the Investigation Officer continued the investigation by consulting staff. While the student was given a copy of the investigation report there was no indication that she was informed of any new evidence that had been collated. The student was issued with a written warning.
The report went beyond the scope of the misconduct allegation. We considered this to be procedurally unfair.
The University turned down the student’s appeal. It did not provide the student with an explanation for its decision.
The OIA decided the complaint was Partly Justified. The University had already offered to revoke the written warning and we recommended that this offer remain open. We also recommended payment of compensation for distress and inconvenience.
University of Manchester
A student complained to the OIA after the University of Manchester upheld its decision to expel him for his behaviour towards another student.
The student complained that in making its decision the University acted unethically, did not take into account his mental illness, and that the original disciplinary meeting was too short to have looked at the case properly. As part of his appeal he claimed that he had been refused an adjournment to allow him to gather medical evidence.
The OIA looked at the minutes of the disciplinary panel and Appeal Board meetings. These showed that the University had given full consideration to the information the student had provided at each stage. The University had provided the student with details of the charge against him and the evidence it would consider ahead of the hearing. It had given him the opportunity to submit a written statement and asked if he objected to the membership of the disciplinary panel. We were satisfied that the University acted fairly.
There was no evidence that the student had sought an adjournment of the first meeting. We noted that such an adjournment would in any case have been at the discretion of the panel. At appeal stage the University gave the student significant extra time to obtain statements about his mental health.
The Appeal Board noted that the student had not sought help with his mental health until the appeal stage and that no diagnosis had been made. It concluded that his behaviour was part of a longstanding pattern and could not be exonerated. It upheld the decision to expel him.
We were satisfied that the University had run a fair process within its regulations and had set a reasonable and appropriate penalty for a serious offence. We decided the complaint was Not Justified.
A student at the University of Falmouth complained to the OIA after the University rejected her complaints that she had been bullied by a senior lecturer and that no account had been taken of her disability. She first raised concerns after she received disappointing marks.
The evidence with regard to bullying was contradictory and on balance the University did not uphold the complaint.
The University could demonstrate that it had provided reasonable adjustments. It suggested that it instigate its Fitness to Study process but the student declined this. The OIA considered that this process would have been likely to be helpful to the student as it would have provided an opportunity for her to discuss her needs. However the student chose to withdraw from the University.
We decided the complaint was Not Justified. Based on the evidence obtained during the University’s investigation into the student’s allegations of bullying, we consider that it would not have been reasonable for the University to have upheld this aspect of the complaint.
In relation to her disability the evidence we saw indicated that the majority of the reasonable adjustments outlined in the student’s needs assessments were in place. We concluded that it was open to the student to raise concerns about the adjustments if she felt they were not meeting her needs prior to submitting her assessments.
September 2016 - Accommodation
Penalty for noise disturbance
University of Portsmouth
A student complained to the OIA after her request to appeal against temporary suspension from the University of Portsmouth was turned down.
The student was living in shared private rented accommodation. Local residents complained to the University and to the local council about noise on several occasions. The council issued a Noise Abatement notice a few weeks into the tenancy and the University, which had already been in touch with the students, began disciplinary proceedings.
Following an initial interview the University imposed sanctions on the students for breach of the Code of Student Behaviour, which prohibits “antisocial behaviour both within the University and within the wider community”. However the University continued to receive complaints about noise and contacted the students to warn them that further breaches of regulations would lead to referral to a major disciplinary panel, which had the ‘power to suspend or exclude students’.
After further incidents the Council issued a Contravention of Abatement notice. This led the University to hold a further investigation of misconduct meeting, which the student did not attend. The University subsequently established a full disciplinary panel to hear the full case. The student did not attend or provide evidence. The panel imposed the maximum available penalty of exclusion from the University for one year. It noted that “the penalty was appropriate given the severity of the incidents and the fact that [the student] refused to moderate her behaviour or engage in the disciplinary progress.”
The OIA found the student’s complaint Not Justified. The University correctly followed its regulations and procedures and afforded the student every opportunity to engage and submit evidence in a timely manner at each stage of the process. It demonstrated that it made her aware of the possible outcome of major misconduct. We concluded that the University’s final decision and chosen penalty were in accordance with its regulations and were reasonable in all the circumstances.
In our Complaint Outcome we noted that the University’s regulations state that it will take action against students who demonstrate anti-social behaviour. This is common practice in the sector and we consider this to be necessary to safeguard the reputation and co-existence of universities within their wider community.
Early release from accommodation contract - need for supporting evidence
University of Derby
A student complained to the OIA about the University of Derby’s final decision not to release her from her contract and liability to pay rent for accommodation in the Halls of Residence.
The student had requested to move from halls on health grounds, stating that her accommodation exacerbated an existing health issue. She was unable to produce any medical evidence to support her claim.
The University had a number of discussions with the student and offered her the opportunity to move to alternative accommodation. She had chosen not to pursue this option. When she appealed the decision not to release her from her contract she raised a number of other issues but was unable to provide evidence to support her statements.
We were satisfied that it was reasonable for the University to require persuasive contemporaneous evidence that demonstrated that living in halls was having a detrimental impact on her health before releasing her from a contract she had signed. We were also satisfied that the University explained to the student that it required evidence dated from the time that she was a resident of the halls. In the absence of such evidence we were satisfied that it was reasonable for the University to reject her request to be released from her tenancy agreement and to reject her subsequent complaint and challenge.
We decided the student’s complaint was Not Justified.
A student from Swansea University complained to the OIA about the University’s final decision not to release him from his accommodation contract.
The student was living in private rented accommodation that was managed by the University accommodation service in partnership with the students’ union. He complained that his room was damp. The complaint was initially considered by the accommodation service, which concluded that there was no damp. Following that decision a Housing Officer from the city council carried out a ‘non intrusive’ inspection and also concluded that there was no damp. A surveyor then carried out a further ‘non intrusive’ inspection that showed high moisture levels in isolated areas.
The student submitted a stage two complaint. An ‘intrusive’ inspection of the property was carried out and this found no evidence of damp. The University dismissed the student’s complaint but as a goodwill gesture offered him alternative accommodation. He declined this and chose to stay in his room. The University rejected the student’s request to review its stage two decision and he complained to the OIA.
The student’s dissatisfaction with the University’s decision rested on it giving greater weight to the report of the ‘intrusive’ inspection than the earlier findings of the chartered surveyor. We were satisfied that the University concluded that the ‘intrusive’ inspection was more robust than the earlier investigations and that it was reasonable to rely on that information.
We considered that the University’s offer to find alternative rooms for the student was accommodating given that it had rejected his complaint.
We found the complaint Not Justified.
Early release from contract – acceptable grounds
University of Wolverhampton
A student from the University of Wolverhampton complained to the OIA about the University’s final decision about her fee liability under the accommodation contract she signed at the start of her studies.
The student decided to move from her accommodation early in the first term. The University offered her alternative accommodation, which she refused. Under the terms of her accommodation contract she was liable for fees until the room was re-let.
The student complained that she would not have taken the room had she known that the other students on the corridor would be international students. The university had informed her that accommodation was mixed in terms of both gender and nationality of students. It explained its policy on diversity to her and contended that any student entering the University could be expected to mix a diverse range of students.
The OIA decided that the University had acted reasonably in rejecting her second stage complaint and that her complaint was Not Justified.
Timeliness of complaints
A former student at Kingston University complained to the OIA about her liability for accommodation fees after she withdrew from her studies. The University had refused to consider her complaint as it was out of time.
The student had entered into an accommodation contract at the start of her studies. She withdrew and moved out of halls early in her first term, giving her reasons as concerns about drug use in the accommodation block. The student was unable to provide any evidence to back up her concerns and the University had had no reports of any drug-related incidents.
The University explained to the student that she would be liable for accommodation fees as outlined in her contract, and pointed her towards the student complaints’ process. However the student did not make a formal complaint for several months.
The OIA was satisfied that the University’s procedures included very clear time limits for making a complaint and that the student had been advised of how to complain. We decided it was reasonable for the University to refuse to consider her complaint because it was brought late. Her complaint to the OIA was therefore Not Justified.
University of Winchester
The University of Winchester was unable to provide local accommodation to a student at the start of his course. The student complained on the basis that he had accepted a place through clearing on the understanding that the University would guarantee him University-managed accommodation, and about the delay in letting him know that it would not be able to accommodate him in Winchester. He also complained that when he was later offered accommodation elsewhere in the city he was not offered the same help with travel costs as other students.
The University upheld his complaint ‘for the most part’ and issued an apology. However it did not offer any financial compensation for travel costs or for distress.
We concluded that the University’s reasons for not providing assistance with travel costs were reasonable and that the student had not provided evidence of any actual financial losses. However, given the University’s acceptance that the student had been caused distress, we concluded that the University ought to have offered some financial compensation, in addition to the apology.
We decided that the complaint was Partly Justified.
We recommended that the University should pay the sum of £500 to compensate for the distress and inconvenience caused by the delay in advising the student that it was unable to locate accommodation in Winchester, and failure to offer direct financial help towards travel costs instead of catering vouchers of a commensurate financial value when the offer of accommodation in another city was made.
Repairs and maintenance
The University of Manchester
A student complained to the OIA after the University of Manchester dismissed his complaint about the way it had dealt with the impact of essential maintenance works at his accommodation.
It is sometimes difficult to avoid disruption caused by building and maintenance works in halls of residence. Steps should be taken to minimise any disruption and to be responsive to complaints. In this case the University had given prior notice of the work. When the student complained about disruption it offered him a number of options, including the opportunity to have a day study room, alternative accommodation or an early termination of the accommodation contract. It also offered him the equivalent of one week’s rent refund as compensation for inconvenience.
The OIA considered that the University had acted reasonably and that the complaint was Not Justified.
Disciplinary issues - proof of breach of regulations
University of Bristol.
A student at the University of Bristol complained to the OIA about a penalty for smoking and covering a smoke detector. The student was fined, issued a written reprimand and required to attend a fire safety course. Her appeal had been dismissed.
The student had been called to a disciplinary meeting after a routine security patrol found a number of students smoking in her room, with the smoke detector covered. The security officer filed a detailed incident report the same day, noting that the students had uncovered the smoke detector before a photograph could be taken. The student appealed on the basis that there was no evidence that the smoke detector had been covered.
The OIA decided that it was reasonable to rely on the security officer’s detailed written report in considering the case. The report made specific reference to the smoke detector and explained why it had not been possible to take a photograph.
The regulations were clear that any interference with smoke detectors would be reported. The penalties imposed on the student were within the range of available sanctions. The OIA decided the student’s complaint was Not Justified.
Engagement in disciplinary process
St Mary’s University Twickenham
A student at St Mary’s University Twickenham complained to the OIA about the penalty for causing damage to university accommodation, after his appeal was rejected.
The student had been called to separate disciplinary meetings for each of two incidents and to a further meeting after he failed to act upon the penalties imposed. Following the third meeting he was given a number of additional sanctions including a ban on living in university-owned accommodation for one year. He appealed on the grounds that the sanctions were too harsh, and that new evidence had come to light that he was not responsible for one of the incidents for which he had been penalised.
In considering his request for review the university noted the student’s view that his name had been cleared with regard to one of the incidents. However he had been banned from accommodation for not complying with the sanctions (in itself a disciplinary offence under the university regulations) and had not engaged with the university’s disciplinary process. He had been informed of his right to appeal after each of the first two hearings but had not chosen to do so.
The OIA decided the student’s complaint was Not Justified.
June 2016 - Financial issues
Consistency in applying regulations
A student at Bournemouth University complained to the OIA about the fees charged for a period of attendance on a course from which she withdrew part way through. The University charged 25% of the full year’s course fee following the student’s withdrawal after five weeks.
The student had withdrawn for financial reasons. She requested that her fees be waived in recognition of her circumstances. The University explained to her that the fees charged were clearly set out in its fees policy, and that exceptions could be made only where there were “severe mitigating circumstances”, such as “serious health issues or bereavement.” It said that the student’s financial difficulties did not amount to severe mitigating circumstances.
The OIA decided that it was reasonable for the University to conclude that the student’s circumstances did not warrant special consideration, and that the complaint was Not Justified.
Refund of fees
De Montfort University
An international postgraduate student at De Montfort University had her Tier 4 visa refused by the Home Office. She appealed that decision and, in the meantime, was permitted to enrol at the University. She was automatically re-enrolled the following year, while her appeal was still pending.
The Court of Appeal rejected her appeal but by that time she had paid two years’ fees. The University declined to refund her fees. She complained to the University and the University dismissed her complaint.
The OIA decided the complaint was Justified because it was not reasonable for the University to have dismissed her complaint without referring it to a full University Complaints Committee. The University had told the student that she was enrolling “at her own risk” but did not fully explain what that meant. There was no evidence that the University had highlighted the financial risk or provided explicit advice to the student on the specific impact upon her should her visa be refused at any point during her studies. The University had a different policy for enrolled students and for applicants, and this was not made clear to the student. The overall refund policy did not mention students whose visa applications were rejected post enrolment. .
We recommended that the University refer the complaint for further consideration and amend its procedures.
Relationship to outside bodies
A student complained to the OIA after the Open University rejected her complaints that its actions had excluded her from accessing specific financial support.
The student was eligible to apply for a stipend from an external organisation that offered funding to study at approved institutions. The University was not listed as an approved institution and the student asked if it would seek to register so that she could access funding. Following discussions with the external organisation the University advised the student that it was unable to pursue registration as the requirements were onerous and in some cases contravened Data Protection legislation.
The OIA found the University to have acted reasonably. In our view it was within the University’s discretion to decide whether to apply to be recognised by another body.
We decided the complaint was Not Justified
Access to funds
Queen Mary University London
A student complained to the OIA about a decision taken by Queen Mary University of London on his application to the Financial Assistance Fund, which operates under national Assisted Learning Fund (ALF) guidance. The University had upheld his appeal, and recalculated the student’s allocation from the fund, but he remained dissatisfied.
Part of the student’s complaint related to the inclusion of salary sacrifice childcare vouchers in the University’s calculation of his income. The student had not declared the value of the vouchers or deducted the amount from the childcare costs he included on his application form. He argued that as the fund guidance and application form did not make any reference to childcare vouchers they should be excluded.
The ALF guidance is clear that institutions have discretion to make decisions based on local circumstances. It also provides for calculations to take account of actual childcare costs and in kind benefits, including salary sacrifice scheme Childcare Vouchers. We considered it reasonable for the University to take into account the value of the vouchers.
We decided the case was Not Justified.
Withdrawal of transitional fee support
A student complained to the OIA after the Open University rejected his appeal against withdrawal of transitional fee support due to lack of academic progress. He contended that he had been misinformed about his eligibility for funding and in particular the requirement to study during each academic year.
The University’s Fee Rules were specific that students must study a module or modules linked to their transitional qualification ‘in each academic year’ unless there were exceptional circumstances as outlined in its policy. It expects students to familiarise themselves with its procedures. The OIA considers this reasonable.
The student had not studied during the whole of one year. He claimed for an exception based on two criteria: maladministration by the University and unforeseen circumstances of a serious nature. He did not provide evidence to support either claim.
We decided the case was Not Justified.
Importance of clear communications
A student at Kingston University complained to the OIA about his fee liability during a suspension from his study due to mitigating circumstances.
The OIA decided the complaint was Partly Justified on narrow grounds relating to the communication to the student of his fee liability. While the University’s regulations set out fee liability it accepted that specific written advice to the student, that he might suspend his studies “without academic or financial penalty”, was ambiguous. The University apologised to the student and offered to reduce his liability by 50 per cent as a goodwill gesture in the light of the distress and inconvenience caused.
The OIA saw no evidence that the University had informed the student of his fees position on his return or during the period of his suspension. While it would have been open to the student to seek clarification we considered that the University had a responsibility to explain the position to him and that its failure to do so made it difficult for the student to plan for his return.
We recommended that the University repeat its offer to reduce his liability by 50 per cent and recommended an additional payment for distress and inconvenience.
University of York
A PhD student at the University of York complained to the OIA about the University’s decision to charge him a continuation fee for the writing up period of his PhD.
The student had been awarded a 3.5 year studentship funded by the relevant Research Councils. He was informed by the University that this would cover “full UK fees” and provide an annual stipend in financial support.
At the start of his fourth year the University invoiced the student for a continuation fee. The student stated that this was unexpected as he had understood from his offer letter that his studentship covered his fees.
The OIA reviewed the offer letter and the information it directed the student to on the University website. We did not consider that the information made it clear that the student would be liable for fees at the end of the standard three year registration period for a PhD.
The OIA found the complaint Justified. We recommended a refund of the fee and an additional payment for distress and inconvenience. We also recommended that the University review and amend the information provided to students about their liability for a continuation fee where the studentship they receive is longer than the standard length of PhD registration.
Sheffield Hallam University
A student at Sheffield Hallam University complained to the OIA that the University rejected his complaint about the impact of a change of status from part time to full time.
The change was made by the University following a conversation with the student regarding his intentions. It was not clear that the student had been fully informed of the implications of making the change or given his written consent. The University accepted in its consideration of his complaint that the student had financial issues arising from the change in his mode of study. It offered a reduction in fees.
The OIA considered that this did not go far enough in recognising the distress and inconvenience caused. We additionally upheld the student’s complaint that the change had altered his choice of modules. We found the University’s decision on other aspects of the complaint reasonable.
We decided the complaint was Partly Justified and recommended financial compensation to cover a rebate of the difference between the part time and full time fees, and for distress and inconvenience.
Withdrawal of discount
University of Wolverhampton
A student at the University of Wolverhampton was eligible for a tuition fee loyalty discount for alumni who returned to the University for further study. He complained to the OIA about the University’s decision to withdraw his discount because of late payment of his fees. He contended that the decision was unfair because he had not been made aware of the terms and conditions of the discount or of the deadline for paying fees.
The University sent us the terms and conditions document that had been sent to all returning students at the start of the academic year and that was available on the website. This set out the date that each instalment was due and made it clear that the discount was subject to prompt payment. It also provided evidence that the student had been sent reminders throughout the year.
Universities have a duty to apply their policies fairly across the student body. The University could demonstrate that it had provided the relevant information to the student. The OIA decided that the withdrawal of the discount was reasonable and that the complaint was Not Justified.
June 2016 - Social Media
Social media and Fitness to Practise
A student at Cardiff University studying for a professional qualification in the School of Healthcare Sciences posted a private message on social media asking another student if she had ‘a spare’ supply of a prescription medication. The student was referred to the Fitness to Practise Co-ordinator and then to the University’s Fitness to Practise procedures. Following an investigation and a hearing the student was withdrawn from the programme.
The student complained to the OIA after his appeal was rejected. He had appealed on the grounds of extenuating circumstances, that he was brought up in a different culture and that English was not his first language. The University determined that these factors were known to the panel that made the decision to withdraw him and that the student had given no reason that he had not raised these issues in his original hearing.
The student also complained that the penalty was unfair as he had not intended to act unprofessionally and was unaware that the drug was a controlled substance.
The OIA reviewed the process followed and found that the University had acted reasonably and in line with its procedures. The penalty was within the discretionary range available to the Fitness to Practise committee. We decided the case was Not Justified.
A student at Coventry University complained to the OIA after the University rejected her appeal against a finding that postings on her Facebook account breached its code of conduct.
The student complained that the University’s findings were not reasonable as the postings had been written by someone else who had access to the account. The University took the view that as the account was in the student’s name and, under Facebook’s terms and conditions it is not possible for two people to share an account, she was responsible for the content. The University issued a final written warning to the student and required her to write a letter of apology.
The University’s procedures allowed for an appeal on three grounds – that information had not been taken into account in the original decision, that proceedings had been unfair, or where a student had been expelled. The OIA was satisfied that the student’s appeal did not fall under any of those grounds.
We were satisfied that it was reasonable for the University to conclude that the student was accountable for the content of the Facebook post, even if she were not the author of the post. We concluded that it was reasonable for the University to state she had a responsibility to ensure that all content associated with the account was in line with the University’s regulations and code of conduct.
We decided the complaint was Not Justified.
Inappropriate use of social media
Edge Hill University
A student at Edge Hill University complained to the OIA after his appeal against the decision of a University disciplinary panel was rejected.
The student had posted offensive material on twitter. A disciplinary panel decided not to withdraw him from his course subject to meeting a number of conditions. The student failed to meet one of the specified conditions, to attend a ‘Digital Footprint Workshop’. The workshop was rescheduled to suit him several times but he did not attend. The University convened a second disciplinary panel which decided unanimously to expel him. The student appealed this decision.
The Minutes of the new disciplinary panel showed that members of the panel had been concerned that the student had not apologised, had shown no awareness of the serious consequences of his actions, and had “displayed a total disregard for the Student Disciplinary process”. In these circumstances, we consider it was reasonable for the University to reject his appeal on the basis that he had not provided evidence of sufficient significance to call into question the fairness of the decision.
The OIA decided the complaint was Not Justified.
January 2016 - Extenuating Circumstances
Extenuating circumstances and fitness to practise requirements
A student at Middlesex University submitted a claim for extenuating circumstances after she had been found unfit to practise. She made new information available at the appeal stage, relating to her circumstances outside university. She had chosen not to raise these issues at the original fitness to practise hearing.
The University was not satisfied that the circumstances described were sufficient to allay concerns about the student’s clinical practice, as “Health practitioners are required to make professional and appropriate decisions even in extreme circumstances outside work or to seek support in dealing with such eventualities.” It was able to demonstrate that it had followed its fitness to practise procedures correctly, had considered representations from the student, and that its decision to withdraw her from the course was within the scope of the regulations.
The OIA decided that the student’s complaint was Not Justified.
Clarity on how extenuating circumstances have been considered
A student at Teesside University taking a professional qualification claimed extenuating circumstances on different grounds for each of three attempts at an examination. She needed to pass this examination to achieve a degree that carried professional accreditation.
The University initially offered to award her a degree that did not carry professional accreditation and subsequently offered her a capped attempt at the examination that had been the subject of her earlier extenuating circumstances claims. To accept this offer she would be required to forfeit the award of the degree that did not carry professional accreditation. The University did not clearly explain to her how her extenuating circumstances had been considered or why a further attempt would be capped.
The OIA decided her complaint was Partly Justified on the grounds that decisions and communications were not transparent and that the University’s offer of a resit potentially put the student in a worse position since if she failed the examination she would end up with no degree. We recommended compensation for distress and inconvenience, and as a contribution towards the detrimental impact upon her earning potential which resulted from her not completing the accredited degree (that contribution took into account the fact that the student had chosen not to take the resit examination). We also recommended a review of the Assessment Review regulations.
Responsibility on students
University of Huddersfield
A student at the University of Huddersfield complained to the OIA after she failed her course and her appeal to the University was turned down.
The student submitted extenuating circumstances after receiving her results. She explained that she had not submitted them at the time as she felt she was able to deal with her issues on her own.
Universities commonly take the view that if a student does not declare extenuating circumstances as soon as they become aware of them they cannot be taken into account later unless there are compelling reasons why they were not declared at the proper time. We do not consider this approach to be unreasonable.
The OIA was satisfied that the University’s extenuating circumstances and fit to sit policies were clear and easily accessible to students. We considered that the student had a responsibility to highlight and seek advice on any issues that she felt had affected her performance.
We decided that the student’s complaint was Not Justified.
Consideration of extenuating circumstances
Royal Holloway, University of London
A student at Royal Holloway University of London appealed an assessment result on procedural grounds that the University had not considered her extenuating circumstances. She complained to the OIA after her appeal was rejected.
The student’s claim for extenuating circumstances had been omitted in error from the material considered by the Sub Board of examiners. When this came to light prior to the release of results, a virtual meeting was convened to discuss her case in light of the extenuating circumstances claim. The University apologised to the student for the error.
The assessment of the impact of extenuating circumstances on a student’s performance normally involves academic judgment, with which the OIA will not interfere. We were satisfied that the student’s circumstances had been properly considered by the reconvened virtual meeting of the Sub Board as soon as the original error was realised, and that the University had followed its regulations.
We decided that the complaint was Not Justified.
Delay in appealing
York St John University
A student at York St John University complained to the OIA after the University refused her appeal against withdrawal for academic misconduct.
The student submitted her appeal outside the deadline. She was given an opportunity to explain the reasons for her late submission but failed to do so. When her appeal was found ineligible she made a further appeal to the Vice Chancellor under the regulations, in which she claimed that the delay had occurred while she sought medical evidence to support a claim for extenuating circumstances.
The University’s regulations clearly stated that reasons for late submission should be provided at the time that the appeal was submitted. The student had failed to do this. The OIA considered that the University’s decision not to allow the appeal was reasonable.
We decided the complaint was Not Justified.
Grounds for appeal
University of Reading
A student who had been withdrawn from the University of Reading after failing assessments complained to the OIA that the University did not accept his grounds for a full appeal hearing.
The OIA decided the complaint was Not Justified. The student submitted a claim for extenuating circumstances well after the deadline. The circumstances he put forward included pressure of balancing studying with a full time job, which the University excluded as allowable grounds as students were permitted to work for no more than 16 hours a week. He also included medical evidence that was dated several months after the assessments had taken place. He was unable to provide reasons why he had not raised other issues at the time they arose.
January 2016 - Non attendance and non completion of work
Student excluded from assessment opportunity
University of Westminster
A student at the University of Westminster appealed a decision to remove him from the course for lack of progress including a failed core module.
The University had counted as an attempt an assessment that the student was not allowed to complete because of unpaid tuition fees. Failure in this module contributed to the Assessment Board’s decision to terminate his studies. The University confirmed to the OIA that, had this element not been counted as an attempt, the student would have had a further opportunity to take the assessment.
We expressed concern about the blanket policy of preventing students from attending assessments when they have debts and suggested that the University consider other options in these circumstances, such as refusing to mark work or withholding a mark or an award until the debt is cleared.
We decided the complaint was Partly Justified. We recommended that the student be given a fresh opportunity to submit work, and financial compensation for distress and inconvenience.
Late submission – responsibility on students
Sheffield Hallam University
A student at Sheffield Hallam University complained to the OIA after her appeal against the decision of an Assessment Board was rejected.
The Assessment Board referred the student in a piece of coursework because it was submitted after the submission deadline and therefore was not considered to be a valid attempt. The student explained that she had taken the submission deadline date from Turnitin.
The University accepted that the date given on Turnitin was misleading as it applied only to students who had been granted an extension. However the appeal panel noted that the student had been advised to use the assessment scheduler, the Blackboard site and the module guidance, all or which gave the correct date. No other students had submitted work late.
The OIA decided that the University’s decision was reasonable and in accordance with its Assessment Regulations and Appeal Regulations.
We found the student’s complaint Not Justified.
Extenuating circumstances and non-submission of work
University of Leicester
A student at the University of Leicester complained to the OIA after appealing unsuccessfully against the University’s decision not to extend the maximum registration period for an MBA, and to award him a Postgraduate Diploma. The University explained that the request was denied due to lack of progress. The student had not completed his dissertation and had not submitted any work in the preceding four years.
The student claimed that he had been unaware of the deadlines for submitting work. He also claimed extenuating circumstances relating to work-related stress and a recurrent health issue. The University took the view that these were insufficient to explain why he had not submitted work. The student did not provide any indication of how his circumstances affected his ability to complete his dissertation, and did not provide any fresh information to the appeal panel that had not been taken into account when he applied for an extension of registration.
The assessment of the impact of extenuating circumstances normally involves academic judgment in which the OIA will not interfere. We decided that the University’s decision that the extenuating circumstances were not sufficient to explain the student’s lack of progress was reasonable in the circumstances of the case, and that the timescales for submitting work were made clear to students on the Blackboard Student Website.
We decided the complaint was Not Justified.
Withdrawal for non-attendance
University of East London
A student at the University of East London complained to the OIA after her appeal against withdrawal for non-attendance was rejected.
The University had previously given the student opportunities to improve her attendance before withdrawing her in the second semester. By that time it felt she had missed too much teaching to be able to catch up. The student’s attendance fell well below the course requirement of 75 per cent attendance.
The student appealed the decision on the grounds of ill-health and concerns that her swipe card had not been working properly. She had not contacted the University about either of these issues before being notified of the decision to withdraw her.
The OIA decided that the University’s decision was reasonable. As the student had not contacted the University it was not in a position to offer her any support. Its decision to withdraw her was in line with its academic regulations.
We decided that her complaint was Not Justified.
Attendance and disability
An international student with a Tier 4 visa at Newcastle University complained to the OIA after being withdrawn from his course for non-attendance. He complained that insufficient attention had been given to his disability.
The student did not submit evidence of his disability until close to the end of the disciplinary process. The OIA considered that once this evidence was provided the onus was on the University to consider what regulations and procedures it was applying to the student and whether it ought reasonably to make reasonable adjustments to those regulations and procedures to remove any disadvantage to the student. There was no evidence that this had happened.
The OIA decided that the student’s complaint was Justified. The student no longer wished to return to the course. We recommended a partial refund of fees and accommodation costs and financial compensation for distress.
Delay in appealing
A student at Coventry University complained to the OIA that the University did not accept his late appeal against withdrawal for non-attendance.
Following two warnings the University wrote to the student advising him that he was being withdrawn, and advising of his right to appeal within 10 working days. The student did not appeal within the deadline. He explained that he had ignored the letter as he thought it had been sent in error and only took action when he was unable to submit work electronically because his registration had been terminated.
The OIA’s review focused on the University’s final decision, which was to refuse to consider the appeal because the student submitted it late. We concluded that decision was within the University’s appeal regulations, and that it was reasonable. The University had made its regulations clear to students through a number of means including the student handbook and the student portal.
The OIA decided that the complaint was Not Justified.
Lack of evidence to support appeal
King's College London
A student on a BSc programme at King’s College London complained to the OIA about the College’s decision to reject her academic appeal.
The student had been given two extensions to the deadline for her dissertation on the grounds of extenuating circumstances but failed to submit work. After the second extension expired she submitted a Notification for Examination Absence (NEA) - the process to follow when unable to submit a dissertation. This was not accepted as it was outside the deadline and she was awarded an exit award of a Pass in a DipHE.
The student appealed, providing letters from her GP to support her appeal. The appeal was rejected at stage one because the Assessment Board decided that she had not submitted new evidence that had not previously been considered. The Board was also not satisfied that she had been unable for valid reasons to submit information before it confirmed her exit award.
The OIA was satisfied that the College’s decision was reasonable. The medical evidence was, in our view, not compelling. It did not provide a definitive statement that the student was too unwell to use the NEA process at the time, and was not evidence of a new condition.
The OIA found the case Not Justified.
London Business School
A student at London Business School complained to the OIA after her appeal against being withdrawn from her programme was rejected.
The student provided a note from her doctor to the appeal stating that symptoms she had described to her GP suggested that she had experienced depression from a few weeks before the examinations she had failed until shortly before the issue of the medical note, which was dated three months after the last exam. The doctor’s note did not explain why the student had been unable to engage with the School’s extenuating circumstances process.
The School rejected the appeal. The student’s legal representative wrote to the School two months later asking it to reconsider and enclosing further medical evidence. The School considered the evidence but declined to reopen the appeal.
We were satisfied that the School had properly considered the appeal, and that it reasonably concluded that the student ought to have disclosed her extenuating circumstances at the time of the examinations. We were also satisfied that, in the circumstances, it was reasonable for the School to refuse to reopen the appeal when new evidence was submitted.
The School stated that it rejected the new evidence because it was not an independent or objective medical report, but a response to a series of leading questions asked by the student’s solicitors. The School said the evidence was not genuinely compelling ‘new information’ and there were no justifiable reasons for its lateness. The OIA shared the concerns about the manner in which the information had been solicited and leading nature of the questions put to the medical professional. We concluded that the School had given thorough consideration to the new evidence and provided clear and persuasive reasons for its decision to reject it.
The OIA decided the student’s complaint was Not Justified.
Responsibility on students
Regent's University London
An overseas student at Regent’s University London was taken ill before his exams. He returned to his home country, where he was diagnosed and treated for an acute illness. During his absence he missed an examination and did not submit an extenuating circumstances claim. The Assessment Board decided that he would be required to retake the assessment for a capped mark.
On his return the student appealed this decision on the grounds of extenuating circumstances which he was unable, or for valid reasons, unwilling to divulge at the time of the assessment. His appeal was rejected. The Appeal Board noted that the student had completed treatment three days before the deadline for submitting extenuating circumstances and that it would have been open to him to submit a claim and accompanying medical evidence by e-mail.
The University’s regulations required the student to establish that he was ‘unable’ to submit his claim by the deadline. We were satisfied that it was reasonable for the University to decide that the student had not established that he was unable to meet the deadline because he did not submit any evidence to that effect. We were also satisfied that it was reasonable for the Board to conclude that the student’s absence from the UK was not a valid reason for not submitting his extenuating circumstances claim on time.
We found the student’s complaint Not Justified.
September 2015 - Fitness to Practise
Delays in fitness to practise process
University of East Anglia
A student complained to the OIA after he was withdrawn from a degree leading to a professional qualification for professional misconduct.
The OIA found that the University properly considered the student’s case and that its decision to withdraw him was in line with both the University’s and the professional regulatory body’s regulations. However we were critical of the amount of time it took. While the University’s procedure did not specify a time frame we were concerned that it took the University more than twelve months from the date of the investigating officer’s report to schedule the appropriate disciplinary meeting. This meant that the student had embarked on a new academic year before the decision to withdraw him was finalised.
The OIA found the case Partly Justified. We recommended that the University refund his fees for the academic year and make an additional payment for distress and inconvenience.
University of Northampton
A student at the University of Northampton complained after the University decided she was unfit to practise following disclosure of criminal charges against her.
The OIA found that the University had followed its procedures correctly and that the outcome was in line with its regulations. However we considered that the University took too long to convene a Fitness to Practise panel after the conclusion of the court case and the initial investigation, given the potential seriousness of the outcome for the student.
We found the complaint Partly Justified. We recommended financial compensation for the student for distress and inconvenience and recommended that the University clarify its procedures to include timescales.
De Montfort University
A student nurse at De Montfort University complained to the OIA after the University turned down her grounds for appeal against being withdrawn from her course.
The student had been referred to a Fitness to Practise panel following concerns about her clinical practice, including in administering drugs, taking observations and carrying out nursing procedures. The panel decided that because of the seriousness of the proven concerns and the need to safeguard the public it had no option but to withdraw the student. The panel’s decision was based on full consideration of the evidence and the outcome in line with both the University and the Nursing and Midwifery Council’s regulations.
The student sought to appeal on the grounds that the decision to withdraw her was too severe, especially given that she had a diagnosed learning difficulty. Under the Equality Act 2010 the duty to make reasonable adjustments does not extend to a competence standard, defined as “an academic, medical or other standard applied for the purpose of determining whether a person has a particular level of competence or ability.” Given that the fitness to practise panel’s consideration of the student’s case related to a competence standard the OIA agreed with the University that it was not required to make adjustments.
The OIA found the case Not Justified.
Leeds Beckett University
A student at Leeds Beckett University complained after his appeal against withdrawal from his course was turned down.
The University had considered a number of alleged breaches of its conduct regulations both in the course of the student’s clinical practice and in his interactions with other students. In finding him guilty of two breaches it relied on witness statements that had been anonymised for the purposes of the hearing.
The OIA considered that this was not a fair process as he was not informed of who provided information. The use of anonymous witness statements appeared to have breached the University’s regulations. While we accepted the University’s explanation that it wished to protect students from possible intimidation, that needed to be balanced against a duty of fairness to the student facing fitness to practise proceedings.
The OIA also found procedural irregularities in the way the University had notified the student of the grounds on which he could appeal.
The OIA found the student’s complaint Justified. We recommended that the University offer him the right to have his appeal referred to an appeal committee.
A student at Plymouth University complained about the process followed and decision taken by the University to withdraw her from a nursing course.
The University followed its fitness to practise procedure after details emerged about issues in the student’s personal life that raised questions about her ability to meet safeguarding children requirements. Its decision to remove her from the course and set conditions on her being able to re-apply was based on concerns that she had not reported the issues to the University.
Nursing students are expected by universities and their professional regulators to have the insight to act on issues that may give rise to professional concern. While the OIA will not interfere with the professional judgment of a university that a student is fit or unfit to practise, it can look at the circumstances that led to that decision. We decided that the University had followed procedures and considered carefully the evidence before it, and found the complaint Not Justified.
Importance of keeping records of proceedings
A student at the Swansea University complained about the University’s decision not to uphold her application for a final review of the outcome of a Fitness to Practise committee.
The student was referred to Fitness to Practise procedures when it emerged that she had withheld information in her application to a course that was subject to professional requirements. She sought a review of the decision to exclude her on the grounds of irregularities in the conduct of the relevant procedures, and on the severity of the sanction.
One of the procedural grounds for review was that the student did not agree with the minutes of the Fitness to Practise committee meeting. The University had invited her to make revisions and was able to demonstrate how it had considered her suggestions. The OIA reviewed the original and revised minutes and concluded that it was reasonable for the University to describe some of student’s proposed changes as introducing new arguments in response to evidence presented to the committee and its findings.
The sanction imposed was within regulations and it was clearly signalled to applicants that ‘Failure to disclose anything relevant which is subsequently discovered could lead to termination of… training’. The University concluded that the failure to disclose the information was a serious matter which meant that the student could not continue with her studies.
In light of all the information available the OIA considered it reasonable for the University to conclude that there were no grounds to re-open the case. We found the student’s complaint Not Justified.
Importance of Clear Procedures
London South Bank University
A student at London South Bank University complained about the University’s decision not to uphold his appeal against his withdrawal from the course on fitness to practise grounds.
Following concerns about the student’s conduct on a placement the University wrote to him inviting him to a meeting. The letter did not make it clear that this was a precursor to referring him to a fitness to practise panel or make him aware of the potential seriousness of the meeting. The student was not sent copies of the information presented to the panel, and was not provided with a copy of the minutes.
The OIA found the student’s complaint Justified. We noted that at the time the University did not have a published Fitness to Practise procedure. We recommended that the University set up a fresh panel, and establish a formal procedure for dealing with future cases.
A student at Cardiff University complained about the University’s decision to reject her appeal against a finding that she was unfit to practise and was required to withdraw from the University.
The student was subject to fitness to practise proceedings following a criminal conviction. The fitness to practise committee concluded that the conviction made her unfit to practise in her chosen profession. This was in line with the regulations of both the University and the relevant regulatory body.
The University’s appeals process allows appeals against the outcome of a fitness to practise committee on two grounds – irregularities in the conduct of the committee; or the presentation of extenuating circumstances or new information that was not for good reason available at the time.
The student sought to appeal on the grounds of procedural irregularity, arguing that she had not had a fair hearing as the School’s representative had stated that the School did not wish the student to return, and that no evidence had been presented to support the School’s view that her conviction would make it difficult to secure a placement.
The Regulations specifically allowed for a representative of the School to attend and provide information to the committee. We were therefore satisfied that it was reasonable for the School’s views to be presented and taken into account. We were also satisfied that it was reasonable for the School, which organised placements, to advise on the likely impact of the student’s conviction on her acceptance into another placement, should she be found otherwise fit to practise.
The student also argued that the University had not taken into account the circumstances leading to her conviction in making its decision. We agreed with the University that its role was not to look at the criminal offence but to consider whether the conviction meant the student was not fit to practise.
The OIA found the complaint Not Justified. We concluded that the University had acted reasonably in rejecting the student’s appeal. The Fitness to Practise Committee had correctly followed its procedures, and reasonably decided that the student’s criminal conviction constituted a breach of the professional regulatory code for her profession and meant that she was unfit to practise.
September 2015 - Placements
Nottingham Trent University
A student at Nottingham Trent University complained to the OIA after the University rejected her complaints that she had been able to complete her professional qualification in one year as her placement did not include enough practice hours.
The OIA found the complaint Justified on two main grounds. First, although she had raised concerns about lack of hours early in the placement, the University failed to act and did not begin to look for a suitable alternative until four months later. We considered that this delay led to the student being unable to complete her qualification within one year. Second, we were critical of the way the University handled her complaints and the lack of information about how it had looked into the issues she raised.
We recommended substantial financial compensation to the student for delay in being able to seek employment as a qualified professional, and an additional sum for distress. We also recommended that the University review the way it manages placements.
We note that the student successfully completed studies with the University.
Transparency of decisions
University of Wolverhampton
A student at the University of Wolverhampton complained after her appeal against a decision to fail her second practice placement was turned down.
The student complained that evidence that she was failing the placement was not provided to her ‘on an ongoing basis’ before the placement was suspended. A written report prepared within the University at the appeal stage was not shared with the student, meaning that she had no opportunity to comment. Where new material is introduced and is taken into account by the decision maker in reaching the final decision, the student should be informed of the new material and given the opportunity to comment on it. Failure to do so may undermine the fairness of the final decision.
The OIA found that the decision to dismiss the appeal without referring it to a panel was not reasonable in the circumstances of the case as further information had been gathered by the University following the first stage appeal. A panel would have given the student the opportunity to present her case in person and comment on the additional information.
The OIA found the case Justified. We recommended that the University offer the student the opportunity to have her case considered by a second stage review panel.
Responsibility of students
University Campus Suffolk
A student taking a vocational course at University Campus Suffolk withdrew from her course following difficulties with the placement. She complained that she had been asked at short notice to decide whether to continue her placement after a close relative fell ill, and that she had been forced to withdraw from her degree programme.
In reviewing the case the OIA noted that the student’s difficulties with the placement were already being addressed by an action plan agreed with the placement provider, before her family member fell ill. There was no evidence that the student had been asked to choose between continuing the placement and withdrawing from the degree progamme. The student had previously discussed withdrawal with her tutors and set out clear reasons for doing so.
The OIA found the case Not Justified. We were satisfied that the university acted reasonably in working with the student to prepare an action plan to support her in overcoming concerns identified about her performance during the placement. It was clear that there were options available to her to discuss her concerns before deciding to withdraw.
Communication of placement outcomes
Manchester Metropolitan University
A student at Manchester Metropolitan University complained about his experiences with the professional placements on his course.
The student was required to complete placements at two different providers. At the end of the first placement the provider did not provide the required written review of his performance to the University. Shortly into the student’s second placement the second provider expressed concerns about aspects of his practice to the student and to the University. An improvement plan was put in place to support the student in meeting the required professional standards. However the student went on to fail the placement.
The OIA found elements of the student’s complaint Not Justified. However it considered that it was not reasonable for the University to have dismissed his complaint that the absence of the written review from the first provider put him at a disadvantage when he began his second placement. We also found that the University had not acted reasonably in not sending the student a written explanation of why he failed the second placement.
The OIA found the complaint Partly Justified. We recommended financial compensation for distress and inconvenience.
September 2015 - Supervision
University of York
A postgraduate student at the University of York complained to the OIA about the way the University had responded to complaints about her supervision.
The University did not inform her that her primary supervisor left the University before she commenced her studies. The student explained that this delay meant that she was denied the chance to consider changing institutions before she began her courses. The University appointed an alternative supervisor, but did not appoint a Thesis Advisory Panel, which it acknowledged meant that the student did not have access to an important source of professional input and guidance. The University had offered a payment of £2,000 to the student to compensate for the issues she experienced.
The OIA concluded that it was the responsibility of the University to inform the student of the change in supervisor and to put in place suitable alternative arrangements. We found the case Justified and recommended an increased financial payment of £3,500.
Using the right forum to raise issues
A student at Kingston University complained after her academic appeal was turned down.
In the course of her appeal the student raised concerns about the supervision she received while preparing her dissertation. These issues were outside the scope of the University appeals regulations.
It would have been open to the student to make a complaint about her supervision. However the complaints process required complaints to be made within 15 working days of the events giving rise to the complaint taking place. In this case the student did not raise her concerns for several months and gave no reason why she had not done so earlier.
The OIA found the case Not Justified.
Importance of sharing information
University of Lincoln
A PhD student at the University of Lincoln complained of bullying and harassment by a supervisor. The student was dissatisfied with the University’s initial investigation because the University characterised the issues raised as ‘miscommunication’ and proposed remedies after the first investigation that left the student feeling vulnerable. His complaint was considered at two subsequent stages of the University’s Complaints Procedure but the University’s final decision was not to refer it to a formal complaint hearing.
The OIA found that the University’s consideration of the complaint had not been reasonable as the supervisor’s responses to the issues the student raised were not passed on to the student or to the panel looking at the complaint. This was not a fair procedure and we considered it likely that it would have made it more difficult for the student to prepare a request for review. We also considered that the panel had not been in a position to make a decision on the review request as it did not have all the relevant information.
The OIA found the case Justified on the basis that a fair process had not been followed. We did not consider the substantive grounds of the complaint about bullying. We recommended that the University offer the student, who had since left, the opportunity to resubmit a statement, outlining concerns about the outcome of the first investigation, for consideration at a hearing of the University’s Complaints Board, and that the University review its procedures. The University reviewed its procedures and made changes to its complaints process as a result of the OIA’s recommendations.
Providing supervisory team
University of Cumbria
A postgraduate student at the University of Cumbria made a number of complaints about his supervision.
The University was able to demonstrate that the main supervisor had provided regular support and encouraged the student to seek input as his work developed. However it did not inform the student that his second supervisor had left the University and did not arrange a replacement.
The University upheld elements of the student’s complaint and offered to cancel the balance of his tuition fees and refund any expenses which he could evidence.
The OIA considered that the University did not follow the guidance given to students in the research handbook and that this put the student at a disadvantage. There were delays in the way the University dealt with the student’s complaint and this also disadvantaged the student. We found the complaint Partly Justified and recommended financial compensation for distress and inconvenience, cancelation of the outstanding balance of fees, an apology and a review of the complaints procedure.
University of Bath
A student who had withdrawn from a programme at the University of Bath complained that his lead supervisor did not have the necessary expertise to supervise his work.
In considering the complaint the OIA noted that the student had not raised any concerns about his supervision, or requested a change of supervisor, before he withdrew from the course. It would have been open to him to seek advice from the university while he was still a student.
Under the Rules of the OIA Scheme the OIA cannot consider a complaint to the extent that it relates to a matter of academic judgment. A person without relevant academic expertise is unable to make a meaningful assessment of the quality of the academic support received during the PhD.
The OIA decided that the university’s decision not to uphold the student’s complaint was reasonable in the circumstances of the case.
The complaint was found Not Justified.
Responsibility of students
London School of Economics
A student at the London School of Economics complained to the OIA after the School dismissed her appeal against a decision not to upgrade her to PhD status.
The student complained that the panel making the decision had not considered her supervision, which she felt had been ‘unsatisfactory’ during her first year.
There was no evidence that the student had complained formally or informally about her supervision prior to appealing the decision not to upgrade her to a PhD. When her appeal was dismissed the School informed the student of the process to make a complaint but she did not pursue this. Had the student complained at an early stage there may have been an opportunity for the School to look into and if appropriate address the issues she raised.
The OIA considers that students at this stage of their academic careers can be expected to take responsibility for their own learning and for raising any concerns. In this case we considered that the student’s subsequent appeal submission, based solely on problems with supervision once she had received the Panel’s decision, was undermined by the absence of complaints made at the time. We found her complaint Not Justified.
May 2015 - Disciplinary issues (non-academic)
Engagement with university procedures
University of Essex
A student at the University of Essex was reported for alleged participation in an incident in which drugs were found on the University campus. He failed to attend two meetings with the University Proctor and was fined for non-attendance. Following the second meeting the Proctor decided to consider the case in the student’s absence, and imposed a fine, suspended pending the student attending a drugs awareness course. The student was also fined for other offences, and refused future access to University accommodation. His appeal against these penalties was rejected. He complained to the OIA.
The OIA found that the University had followed its disciplinary processes correctly and found the complaint Not Justified. The Student Conduct procedures were clear that attendance at meetings with the Proctor during term time was mandatory. The procedures also set out the range of penalties available to the University.
Use of evidence
University of East London
A student at the University of East London appealed the decision of a disciplinary panel to exclude her from the University for gross misconduct, following a break-in on the campus during which examination papers were stolen.
The decisions of the disciplinary and appeals panels rested on CCTV footage. The student complained to the OIA that the CCTV footage alone was insufficient evidence that she had been party to or aware of the incident.
The disciplinary panel had watched the footage and reached the ‘unanimous decision’ that the student’s actions including being present when the break in took place, greeting the culprit and showing ‘jubilation’ on seeing the examination papers, were sufficient “on the exercise of the balance of probabilities, to convince the Disciplinary Panel that the appellant knew what was going on, and was a willing party in the disciplinary offence.”
The OIA was offered, but did not take up, an opportunity to review the CCTV footage. We reviewed the detailed written notes on the footage considered by the disciplinary and appeals panels at the University, the student’s responses to questions, and the notes of discussions at the Appeals panel. We were satisfied that the Appeal Panel’s conclusion that the decision of the disciplinary panel that the student had been party to the incident was reasonable, noting that the ‘balance of probabilities’ is the standard of proof required by the University disciplinary procedures.
We found the complaint Not Justified.
Balance of probability
Buckinghamshire New University
A student at Buckinghamshire New University complained to the OIA about the outcome of disciplinary procedures instigated by the University. The University concluded that he had committed major misconduct in relation to damage at his student accommodation. He appealed against that outcome, and the penalty applied, but his appeal was rejected on the grounds that he had not provided material evidence to support his appeal.
The OIA was satisfied that the University had followed its procedures when investigating the allegations against the student. We were satisfied that the University conducted a thorough investigation which included consideration of witness statements and photographs. The student disciplinary procedures are clear that “The balance of probabilities should be used in University disciplinary matters, as opposed to the evidence being ‘beyond reasonable doubt.”
The OIA found the decision of the disciplinary panel and the decision to disallow the student’s appeal reasonable and found the complaint Not Justified.
Case involving criminal proceedings
University of Sheffield
Student A complained to the OIA about the University of Sheffield’s handling of an incident involving himself and another student, student B. The incident took place on University premises, and student A suffered a significant injury. Student B was subjected to criminal proceedings but was discharged by the court. The University did not suspend him, or instigate disciplinary proceedings against him. Student A subsequently withdrew from the University. He complained that no action had been taken against student B and that the University had failed to communicate with him.
The OIA found the case Partly Justified on a number of grounds, including that the University did not keep adequate records of its decision not to suspend student B, or consider whether in the circumstances it should inform student A of its decision. We concluded that it was reasonable for the University to await the outcome of criminal proceedings before pursuing disciplinary action against student B.
The University’s disciplinary regulations precluded it from taking any disciplinary action against a student where criminal proceedings against that student had resulted in an acquittal. We concluded that it was not reasonable for the University to maintain such a blanket ban. The disciplinary procedures applied a lower standard of proof than criminal proceedings, and a student might be found guilty of a breach of the University’s code of conduct even though he had not been found guilty of a criminal offence. It was not therefore reasonable to dismiss student A’s complaint against the decision not to take disciplinary action. We note that the University has now changed its policy in this respect.
We recommended that the University pay compensation to student A. We also recommended that the University review and develop its guidance on the procedures relating to the discipline of students to include details on what actions it takes in deciding whether to suspend a student.
Academic appeals and disciplinary proceedings
Brunel University referred the student to a disciplinary panel to consider an allegation that he had provided forged medical evidence to support an academic appeal. The University suspended consideration of the academic appeal pending the outcome of the disciplinary process.
Following consideration by a disciplinary panel the student was found to have forged medical certificates and was expelled from the University, but was permitted to retain the academic credits he had already achieved. His appeal against the finding of the disciplinary panel was dismissed as he had not presented a prima facie case.
The student complained to the OIA about the process and penalty of the disciplinary procedure and about the University’s decision not to continue with his academic appeal. The OIA found that the disciplinary issues had been dealt with correctly under the University’s procedures and that the penalty was within the range available. We considered that the decision not to proceed with the academic appeal was reasonable as any remedy would have been overridden by the fact that the student had been expelled from the University.
We found the complaint Not Justified.
University of Westminster
A student at the University of Westminster was found to have forged evidence to an academic appeal against withdrawal for lack of academic progress. The University rejected the appeal on the basis of fraudulent evidence and because it had been submitted out of time. It informed the student that the appeal would be referred to a disciplinary panel as it broke the Student Code of Conduct.
The OIA was satisfied that the University had acted within its regulations in bringing disciplinary proceedings and that its decision and the penalty imposed were reasonable.
We found the complaint Not Justified.
May 2015 - Consumer protection issues
Communication of withdrawal of modules
A student at the Open University complained that he had not been given adequate notice of changes to the postgraduate Social Sciences programme. The withdrawal of an MSc qualification entailed the cancellation of several modules, which meant that beyond a certain date the student would be unable to gain the credits he needed to complete the original qualification he hoped to achieve. Other MSc options remained available to him.
The University was able to demonstrate that it had first communicated information about the withdrawal of the MSc and advice to students three years in advance and set out the timetable for existing students to complete the modules that were to be discontinued. It had continued to communicate via email, the module websites and the student portal for the qualification. The University’s conditions of registration made it clear that students are required to check their emails.
The OIA found the complaint Not Justified.
Acting on findings
A student at Glyndwr University complained about a number of aspects of her experience at the University. The University upheld two aspects of her complaint, relating to accommodation and to pastoral care. It offered financial compensation for accommodation difficulties as a gesture of good will.
The OIA found the complaint Partly Justified on three grounds: while the University acknowledged that there had been issues with tutor availability and ‘insufficient’ teaching it did not uphold this part of her complaint; it offered compensation as a gesture of good will only, rather than recognising that compensation was required for the problems the student had encountered, and the complaint also took too long to resolve.
The OIA found other elements of the student’s complaint Not Justified. We noted in particular that she had not sought advice or raised issues with the programme leaders; and that the University had looked into and given reasonable explanations for many of the matters she described. We considered the amount of compensation offered by the University to be reasonable.
Expectations on students
Birmingham City University
A student at Birmingham City University complained about the quality, content and delivery of his course. The course materials and core communications were delivered through the University’s Virtual Learning Environment. The University considered each of the issues he raised. The student’s difficulties appeared to arise from his misunderstanding of the extent to which the course relied on the VLE. He missed the induction programme and several sessions of the course before finally withdrawing.
The OIA found that the University’s communications about the course and its demands on students were clear. Course and programme guides were explicit that students needed to access materials and submit work via the VLE. The University had provided mentoring and other support for the student. He did not raise issues or make a complaint until after he had withdrawn, which precluded the university from taking steps to address any concerns he had.
The OIA found the complaint Not Justified.
Liability for fees
A student at Aston University was withdrawn from his course after failing all but one of the modules. The University gave him the opportunity to submit late extenuating circumstances. His appeal against withdrawal was upheld on the basis that he re-started the course and paid the full fees. The student complained to the OIA, stating that he wished to be held liable for only half the fees.
The student had been slow to engage in the University processes prior to and following its initial decision to withdraw him. He had ignored emails and several requests from the Programme Director to meet with the student. His appeal was submitted after the deadline, but still considered by the University. The student had stated that he was able to pay the fees and had not requested any reduction.
The OIA found the complaint Not Justified. Given that the University’s academic judgment was that the student needed to repeat the year we found its decision that he should be charged the full fee reasonable in all the circumstances.
Changes to course content
University of Portsmouth
A student at the University of Portsmouth complained about the content and quality of her course, which she felt ‘did not fulfil the standards’ she would have expected.
It was clear from the OIA’s review of the case that the University had taken the student’s concerns seriously and undertook a detailed and thorough investigation.
A number of the complaints related to changes in the course. The OIA looked at how these changes had been introduced and communicated to students. The prospectus made it clear that aspects of the course could change. The University explained that changes had been made in part to deal with changes in staffing and in part to keep up with developments in a fast moving scientific field. Students were offered additional tuition.
The University concluded that the course was of the expected standard and quality for a degree course in this subject area, and that the changes improved it. That conclusion involved academic judgement. The OIA noted that the University had conducted a thorough and detailed investigation, and that the University had consulted the external examiner who had been positive about the changes.
The OIA found the complaint Not Justified. We noted that the student had graduated and that it would not be reasonable to award her a refund of fees and maintenance costs.
Composition of course
University of Chester
A student at the University of Chester complained that half the modules on his course related to a subject he did not wish to study. He subsequently withdrew from the course and complained further that he remained liable for fees.
The student had transferred to the course from a different degree programme at the same University and had missed the pre-enrolment information sessions. However the prospectus gave clear information about the composition of the course. The OIA considers it reasonable for universities to expect individual students to take responsibility for researching a course before deciding to enrol on it. The Programme Leader gave the student advice on how he might approach his work to meet the requirements of the course and about options to change to a different degree programme.
The student withdrew several weeks into the course and had become liable for fees. The OIA found the University’s decision to charge 25 per cent of the fees was in accordance with its regulations and was reasonable in the circumstances.
The complaint was found Not Justified.
University of Wales (federal)
The OIA received a complaint from a student who was attending a college to study for a degree awarded by the University of Wales. Under the terms of the agreement between the University and the college, the University was responsible for the academic standards of the course, and for considering complaints about the course.
The college notified the student of its intention to change the structure of the course so that module assessments had to be completed in a shorter period of time. The student was not able to undertake the assessments on that basis and asked the college whether he could leave the course with an exit award. The college said that he could not. The student then left the course and asked for a refund of his tuition fees. At that point the student had achieved 40 credits. He could have achieved an exit award if he had achieved a further 20 credits.
The student made a complaint to the college on the basis that, before he had enrolled on the course, he had been told that he would be able to leave the course with an exit award. He also raised other complaints about the course delivery, maladministration, and the fee structure. The college did not resolve the complaint and the student complained to the University
The University accepted that the student had been given incorrect advice about the exit award, and partly upheld the student’s complaint. It initially decided that the college should refund the tuition fees to the student. It subsequently suggested that the college and the student should meet to agree a remedy. The meeting did not take place and the college did not make any further attempts to offer an alternative solution.
The University did not take any further action to resolve the complaint and the student then complained to the OIA. At that point the University offered to consider the complaint under the next stage of its complaints procedures. The remedy suggested by the University was not acceptable to the student who complained again to the OIA.
The OIA considered how the University had handled the complaint. We concluded that it had failed to deliver a reasoned decision on the student’s complaint. Having decided to uphold the complaint in part, it was up to the University either to ensure that the college complied with its recommendations or offer a remedy itself when the college failed to comply, given the University’s responsibilities under the agreement with the college. There were also significant delays in the handling of the complaint, some of which were the responsibility of the University. We found the complaint Justified and recommended financial compensation, representing a refund of fees and for distress and inconvenience.
Cardiff Metropolitan University
A student at Cardiff Metropolitan University complained that she was charged for 40 weeks accommodation although she moved out after teaching on her course finished earlier than on many other courses.
The University was able to demonstrate that it had given the student adequate notice of the dates on the course, including the end date. The accommodation Licence Agreement was clear that it was for a 40 week period and that the student was expected to pay the full fee. While sympathetic to the student’s position as a student on a limited budget the OIA was satisfied that the University had fully informed her of the length of the teaching term and the terms of the Licence. Once the student had signed the Licence Agreement she was bound by its conditions to pay the full fee.
The complaint was found Not Justified.
Withdrawal for non-payment of tuition fees
University of Greenwich
An international student was withdrawn from the University of Greenwich as she was unable to re-register for the new academic year due to non-payment of fees from the previous registration period.
The OIA found that the University had been flexible in giving the student opportunities to delay payments and had advised her of the implications of failing to pay her tuition fees. We found its decision that the student was not able to register to continue her course reasonable.
The University informed the UK Borders Agency (at the time the agency responsible for student visas) that the student had been withdrawn for failing to register by the agreed deadline. However it did not inform the student either that she was no longer registered or that it had notified the visa authorities. The student continued to attend lectures and receive correspondence from a personal tutor after she had been withdrawn.
The OIA found her complaint Partly Justified on this basis and recommended that the university pay financial compensation for distress and inconvenience caused by its handling of her withdrawal.
Information about the programme
University for the Creative Arts
The OIA considered a complex complaint from a student who raised many issues about the content, teaching and assessment of her course at the University for the Creative Arts. Some of the issues related to academic judgment, which the OIA cannot look at, and we found some of her other complaints Not Justified.
Part of the complaint was that key staff and external visits described in the Course Handbook were not available. While the OIA accepts that changes to courses and teaching staff may be necessary, it is important for universities to explain clearly the situation, provide key information about the changes, and details about any options open to students in writing so that students can understand what has changed and are able to make informed decisions about their options. The OIA was critical of the way the University looked into these matters and found the complaint Partly Justified.
The student had graduated with a high classification. Overall we were satisfied that sufficient tuition and resources were provided by the University to enable the student to complete her course successfully at an appropriate academic standard. In the circumstances, we did not consider that it would be proportionate to require the University to re-investigate the complaint, and we recommended that the University should apologise to the student and pay her some compensation for distress and inconvenience.
Assessment and awards
Anglia Ruskin University
A student at Anglia Ruskin University complained to the OIA after his academic appeal was rejected by the University. He appealed on the grounds that there had been a material error in the assessment of one module.
We concluded that the University could not demonstrate that it had followed its published procedures for assessing the student’s work and that its decision to reject his appeal was not reasonable.
In the course of our review it became apparent that the University had awarded the student his degree two months before he had taken his final examination.
The University’s Assessment Regulations state that “students are considered for an Anglia Ruskin award by the Anglia Ruskin Awards Board if they have satisfied the general requirements for students….and in particular have satisfied the credit requirements of the course for which they are registered”. It appeared that an error had been made regarding the student’s Accredited Prior Learning.
It was clear from reviewing the information provided by the University that the Award Board did not consider the student’s correct academic profile when it calculated his degree classification and conferred the award. We concluded that a material administrative or procedural irregularity had occurred during the assessment process.
The OIA found the complaint Justified. We recommended that the University convene a fresh award panel to consider both the individual module assessment and the overall degree classification, and pay compensation to the student for distress and inconvenience.
January 2015 - International Students
The OIA receives a number of cases that relate to institutions’ responsibilities in relation to visas:
London Metropolitan University
After the university’s licence to sponsor new international students was revoked it reached an agreement with the United Kingdom Border Agency (at the time the relevant agency) to enable existing international students to continue studying there, so long as they were attending and progressing satisfactorily. Where the university was unable to confirm satisfactory attendance or progress, the student’s registration would be withdrawn.
The university withdrew a student’s registration but wrongly gave her the impression that this decision had been taken due to her failure to attend classes – the real reason was due to the poor marks she had achieved. The student based her appeal statement on the fact that she had attended classes but that her attendance may not have been logged as she had not used her smartcard to access university buildings. Had she been informed of the real reason why her registration had been terminated, she may have changed the focus of her appeal statement to the family bereavements she had experienced (including the death of her father). The OIA found the complaint Partly Justified and recommended that the University should allow her to submit a fresh appeal statement and to reconsider her appeal accordingly.
Sheffield Hallam University
An administrative error at the university led to the student’s application for an extension to his student visa being declined by the United Kingdom Borders Agency.
The student complained to the OIA about the way his complaint was handled, and about the level of compensation offered by the university.
The OIA found the complaint Partly Justified. It found no grounds to accept the student’s complaints about requests from the university for information to support his claim for financial compensation, nor about the perceived fairness of the way his complaint was handled. The OIA did however conclude that the university took too long to resolve his complaint. It took the view that had the university met with the student when the administrative error was discovered this would have enabled expectations of redress to be managed and might have helped resolve the complaint more quickly.
Student expectations: international students
Students registering to study in the UK may in some cases have unrealistic expectations:
University of Northampton
The student was a Masters student whose studies were terminated following cumulative academic failure.
At the Appeal Panel hearing she stated that she was not interested in attending teaching sessions, only in receiving her degree, that she did not understand why she had to submit work and that the work she did submit should have passed because her brother in her home country had “checked it” for her. The Appeal Panel concluded that the student had not engaged with her studies and that she did not understand the ethos of the UK HE system or what was required of her.
The OIA concluded that it was unfortunate that the student appeared to have misunderstood the UK HE system, in that payment of tuition fees alone does not in itself result in the award of a degree. Students must of course engage with their programme of study and meet the prescribed academic standards, demonstrated via assessment, in order to be eligible for the award of a degree. The HEI also has a duty to maintain its academic standards and the academic integrity of its awards.
The OIA found the complaint Not Justified.
January 2015 - Procedural issues
The cases below illustrate common issues that arise in complaints about the content or application of university procedures:
Responsibility on students
Students have a responsibility to engage with institutional procedures:
Birmingham City University
A student complained to the OIA that the university had rejected her appeal as she had not provided the right information.
The student had complained about an error in the conduct of the assessment process in ‘an exam’. The university informed her that she had not provided sufficient information about the assessment details, the nature of the error or the remedy sought. It provided her with an opportunity to provide this information which she did not do. She submitted a second stage complaint of procedural irregularity at the earlier stage, but was unable to provide evidence to support this.
The OIA concluded that the university’s procedures were clear in their expectations on students to engage in the process. It found the complaint Not Justified.
A student was studying for an MBA. He did not submit coursework assignments or attend examinations for four modules, and was deemed to have failed due to non submission. These failures were second failures of these modules. The student was exited from the MBA course, but permitted to attempt to retrieve another module with a view to achieving a Postgraduate Certificate.
In an appeal to the university the student argued that he had been given an exemption by the MBA programme leader, allowing him not to undertake the missed assessments but to defer them.
The university dismissed the student’s appeal, and he complained to the OIA.
We looked closely at the evidence that was provided by the student in relation to his case. It was noted that the programme leader had left the university by the time the student made his appeal, so there were no representations directly from him on the student’s appeal. However, the student provided various emails between him and the programme leader, and between him and the programme administrator, which he considered to support his case.
We concluded that the evidence provided by the student to the university did not substantiate his claim that he had been permitted to defer his assessments, and that it was therefore reasonable for the university to dismiss his appeal. We concluded that the complaint was Not Justified.
Universities' discretion to set their procedures
A student submitted an appeal to the university against the mark that she had received for an assessment. She had received a fail grade and had not been permitted to continue on her programme. She appealed on the basis that an arithmetical error may have occurred and asked for her work to be remarked to see if it deserved a pass mark.
The OIA concluded that the student was seeking to challenge the academic judgment of the university. We could not comment on the mark awarded but could look at whether the university had followed its marking and moderation procedures.
The university provided evidence to show that the assessment had been marked and double marked internally and seen by the external examiner which was in line with its procedures. The OIA also concluded that it was reasonable for the university not to routinely remark work unless an error in the marking procedures had been identified. The student also questioned the fairness of the university’s procedures in not allowing her to progress to her dissertation. The OIA concluded it was reasonable for University to set its own criteria for degree progression.
The complaint was found Not Justified.
Disadvantage from procedural error
There are occasions when a university fails to fully follow its own procedures when handling a student’s complaint. In these circumstances the OIA will look at whether the student was disadvantaged by the error and whether the university acted to rectify the mistake:
University of Hertfordshire
A student at the University of Hertfordshire was accused of assaulting a fellow student, resulting in an interim suspension. This suspension was then reviewed and the student was allowed to return on a limited basis. Subsequently the Student Disciplinary Panel for consideration of non-academic misconduct decided to suspend the student with immediate effect until the beginning of the following academic year. The university sent a letter to the student, confirming this decision and explaining her appeal rights against the decision of the Panel. The student decided to submit an appeal on the grounds of procedural irregularity; however this appeal was turned down as it did not meet the permitted grounds for review and an outcome letter was issued. The student’s subsequent request for a temporary lift of the suspension to allow the completion of her degree was also turned down.
The university’s outcome letter acknowledged the fact that the student had not been sent a Letter of Suspension with the Panel’s decision letter. This omission formed part of the basis for the student’s subsequent complaint of procedural irregularity to the OIA. The OIA considered whether the student had been disadvantaged by the failure to send the letter and was satisfied that she had been on notice of the relevant university procedures: the university had discussed the applicable provisions during the review of her interim suspension earlier in the year and had then directed her to the appropriate regulations.
The OIA also looked at what the university had done to put right its failure to include the letter of suspension. The OIA was satisfied that the university’s offer to the student of a further opportunity to request a temporary lift of the suspension constituted an adequate remedy.
As a result, the OIA found the student’s complaint Not Justified.
Importance of clear communications
The clarity of procedures and the way that institutions communicate with students underpin many complaints:
De Montfort University
The OIA considered a complaint from a student about procedural irregularities relating to the termination of his PhD.
The university did not formally notify him specifically that concerns about his progress were so serious that his registration was in jeopardy prior to the decision being taken. The OIA would normally expect students to be put on formal notice, with reference to the relevant regulations, by letter or other correspondence.
The university interpreted his appeal as a challenge to academic judgment, although this was based on an alleged error in decision-making and set out a number of ways in which the student believed the decision to terminate his studies was procedurally flawed. The OIA found the case Justified and recommended that the university identify an independent mediator to address his appeal under the university regulations. The university has reviewed and amended its procedures in the light of the outcome of this case.
Prima facie review
In the OIA’s view, the ordinary or common meaning of a prima facie case for appeal is a case which, on its face and without rebuttal, is sufficient to justify further examination. It does not mean there should be a judgment about the likelihood of the success of such an appeal, although the OIA does accept that it is reasonable for an institution to undertake a sifting of appeals to ascertain grounds for proceeding:
Buckinghamshire New University
The OIA found a complaint Partly Justified where a student’s appeal against failing his course was refused by a senior member of staff who indicated that she had undertaken a prima facie review of the application.
There was no provision made for a prima facie review in the relevant regulations. It was clear from the information provided to the OIA that the university’s decision to refuse the student an appeal went beyond what would normally be understood as prima facie in a number of respects. The OIA made a number of recommendations on the case, including that the university review its regulations to clarify whether or not a prima facie review is part of procedures.
A student complained about the university’s refusal on prima facie grounds to consider her grievance about a refusal, also on prima facie grounds, to allow her to appeal against academic decisions. The OIA found that the academic appeal decision had drawn on written representations from the relevant school that had not been shared with the complainant, counter to the normal definition of prima facie.
The OIA found the complaint Justified. It recommended that the university review its procedures and practices in relation to academic appeals with a view to either amending the wording of its Appeal Regulations in order to remove the ambiguity caused by the use of the phrase prima facie, or making changes to the process followed at the initial appeal stage so that prima facie decisions do not rely upon representations from the student’s school/s or other bodies without due consultation with the complainant.
King’s College London
A student at King’s College London brought a complex complaint after being investigated for suspected manipulation of research data.
The OIA found that the Panel that had first investigated the allegations had gone beyond its remit.
The Panel’s role was to clarify the allegations, determine that these had been made in good faith and decide whether there were prima facie grounds to refer the case to a disciplinary committee. The Panel went beyond this in considering a written statement from the student in which he disputed the allegations, in meeting with the student and in arranging for IT systems to be examined forensically.
The Panel took several months to reach what should have been a relatively straightforward decision that a prima facie case existed. This contributed to delays which led the OIA to award financial compensation to the student. The OIA also recommended that the college should review its Procedure for investigating and resolving allegations of research misconduct to ensure that the initial Panel investigation does not go beyond prima facie consideration. The overall complaint was found Partly Justified.
London Business School
A student at the London Business School was informed that he had failed his second attempt at an exam. He then submitted an appeal on the grounds that there had been administrative error or procedural irregularity and bias against him. A report by an assigned member of staff concluded there were no prima facie grounds for referral of his appeal to an Academic Appeal Committee and the reconsideration of the assessment was that it was still a fail. The student submitted a complaint to the OIA.
The institution’s regulations stipulate that specified senior staff “will review the documents provided by the Investigator..... to determine whether there exists a prima facie case for referral to the Academic Appeal Committee”. In this case, the Investigator’s report ran to several pages and included a conclusion which indicated that it went somewhat further than a prima facie consideration. The OIA therefore expressed concern that the use of the term prima facie in the procedures in relation to the process actually followed in this case was ambiguous and misleading.
For these reasons the OIA found the case Justified and recommended that the students’ appeal be considered by an Academic Appeal Committee at an Appeal Hearing.
Importance of following procedures
Kellogg College, Oxford
The OIA found a student’s complaint about the way her appeal and subsequent complaint were handled Partly Justified because the college had not followed the university’s academic appeal procedures.
The college had agreed to reconsider the student’s appeal following the OIA’s intervention. It rejected the appeal again, but acknowledged its failure to apply the appeals process correctly and offered compensation of £500 and an apology to the student. The student brought her complaint back to the OIA.
The OIA noted that the student had experienced considerable delays, and if her original appeal had been handled correctly the matter would have been resolved much sooner. It also noted that the student had needed to make several attempts to obtain a Completion of Procedures letter following the consideration of her original appeal. It was evident that not all staff were familiar with the university’s procedures.
The OIA recommended increased payment of £1,000 for distress and inconvenience.
A student at Swansea University enrolled on an MPhil with the intention of progressing to a PhD. After the first year, the student appealed the university’s decision that she should remain on the MPhil degree, with the decision about whether she should progress to a PhD deferred. This appeal was resolved informally, with the university making an offer in full and final satisfaction of the student’s academic appeal and concerns. The student accepted this offer and subsequently attended a second viva examination in accordance with the offer. Following this viva, the Academic Panel informed her once again that she should remain on the MPhil degree, with the decision to be reviewed a few months later. It set out a total of nine reservations about her work.
The student submitted a second Academic Appeal Form but this appeal was rejected on initial evaluation because it failed to demonstrate and evidence valid grounds for appeal. The student subsequently submitted a Final Review application against the outcome of her second academic appeal. The student sought an upgrade from MPhil to PhD. The university rejected her Final Review application, concluding that it found no grounds to re-open the case. The student then complained to the OIA.
The OIA excluded from the ambit of its review issues relating to the student’s first appeal, as the student’s acceptance of the offer of a viva resolved that appeal.
The OIA was satisfied that the university followed its Appeals Procedure when considering the student’s second appeal and it was reasonable in the circumstances for the university to reject her application for a Final Stage Review on the basis that it found no grounds on which to re-open. The decision not to allow the student to progress was one of academic judgment, which the University had been entitled to make under its Regulations.
The OIA considered that the university had reasonably concluded that there had been no procedural irregularities and that the student’s second appeal had been handled in a professional manner: she had been made aware of the procedures being followed and her concerns had been properly considered. The university had explained its reasons for the rejection of her second appeal.
For these reasons, the OIA found this decision Not Justified.
University of Wolverhampton
A student on a course validated by the university complained to the OIA about the way the university had handled her complaint about a number of issues including the marking process and the communication of results to students.
Under the second (formal) stage of the university’s complaints procedures, a specified senior post holder decides whether to convene a Resolution Panel, which the student is entitled to attend. In this case the university issued a final decision without convening a Panel, and offered an apology and financial payment for distress and inconvenience plus a further payment as a gesture of good will. The OIA took the view that this put the student at a material disadvantage as there was no opportunity for her to put her case to a panel.
The OIA found the complaint Justified. It recommended that the university convene a resolution panel, make a financial payment in respect of the inconvenience caused by its failure to follow the complaints procedures, and review its complaints practices to make sure that staff follow published procedures.
Access to complaints and appeals processes
A postgraduate student complained that the university had refused to accept a complaint that he had submitted outside the 28 day time limit, and after he had received his final results. The student stated that he had not wished to complain earlier in case this had an adverse effect on his degree results.
The OIA found the complaint Not Justified. The university complaints procedure includes clear deadlines and is widely communicated to students. It is the university’s position that students are expected to familiarise themselves with the contents of its procedures and the OIA does not consider that to be an unreasonable expectation. The procedure also makes it clear the university will deal with complaints ‘without recrimination’. The OIA found that the university had acted within its procedures and that its decision to refuse the student’s complaint was reasonable in all the circumstances.
September 2014 - Disability and ill-health
These cases illustrate issues to be considered in making reasonable adjustments for students with disabilities and looking at claims for extenuating circumstances relating to disability and ill-health.
Responsibility on students to seek diagnosis and provide appropriate evidence
The OIA often reviews cases where students do not submit claims until after the end of their degree programme. In these circumstances the University’s procedures will normally set out very clearly the type of evidence that students need to provide on the issue that they believe affected performance and on why they were unable to provide evidence at the time.
A student at Loughborough University appealed a final degree result based on a late claim for Impaired Performance in the second year. She had no evidence to explain why she did not submit a claim at the end of the second year. The OIA concluded that the complaint was Not Justified:
“While we are sympathetic to the circumstances which [the student] describes and see no reason to doubt her account, we can find no basis to find fault with the University’s decision. We observe that the University has a duty of fairness to all students, and must uphold the integrity of its academic awards. We consider it reasonable that the University requires independent professional evidence to support a claim based upon illness, including specific independent evidence of reasons why a student was unable to comply with required timescales.”
Liverpool John Moores University
Universities have a duty to take reasonable steps to find out about students’ disabilities and provide opportunities for advice and needs assessment to support adjustments but this duty does not extend to routine screening.
A student at Liverpool John Moores University was withdrawn from a course leading to a professional qualification, having failed his second attempt at two modules. Following his withdrawal he had taken an online test which suggested there was a strong possibility he might be dyslexic but had not undergone a formal assessment. He appealed on that basis and the University rejected his appeal.
While both the University and the professional body accrediting the course strongly advised students to seek support there was no evidence that the student had raised any concerns about possible dyslexia until the point he was told he could not continue. The OIA considered that he had some responsibility to have sought support from the University at the time if he had concerns. The OIA also considered that the University’s decision not to treat the student as disabled in the absence of a diagnosis was reasonable, and that the student’s complaint was Not Justified.
London Metropolitan University
The OIA found a case Not Justified where a student at London Metropolitan University appealed against a decision to terminate her studies based on poor attendance due to a health condition. The student had successfully appealed against an earlier decision to terminate her studies and at that stage had been directed to the Disabilities and Dyslexia Service but had chosen not to use this service.
The University’s procedures were widely publicised to students and made it clear that appeals based on mitigating circumstances must demonstrate ‘why the student was previously unable to disclose those circumstances’. It rejected her appeal against the second termination of studies on the grounds that she had not provided relevant evidence and had not engaged with the relevant University processes.
Responsibility on students to follow procedures
Birkbeck College, University of London
It is not unusual for University procedures to specify the type of evidence to be provided to support claims for mitigating circumstance on the grounds of illness. The OIA considers this reasonable
A student at Birkbeck College claimed mitigating circumstances for some of her examinations, stating that she had been ill at the time. She provided only general information from her GP, to the effect that she had reported difficulties sleeping associated with stress. The letters from her doctor did not give any details of the timeframe or duration of her condition nor a clear medical opinion on how this might have affected her performance in examinations. The College’s mitigating circumstances procedures stated requirements very clearly, specifying that medical evidence must include dates, time frame and a medical opinion about the likely effect of illness. The student had not met those requirements and the OIA found her complaint that the College had rejected her claim and subsequent appeals Not Justified.
University of Bedfordshire
A student at the University of Bedfordshire appealed against the University’s decision to require her to repeat part of an academic year, on the grounds that she had been unwell during the assessment period. She did not make a mitigating circumstances claim at the time of the assessments. She was unable to provide medical evidence covering the period of the assessments, instead providing a letter from a doctor in her home country, written before the assessment period, outlining her medical history. She indicated that she was used to self–prescribing and had not visited a doctor in the UK.
The student had not followed the University’s procedures or provided the necessary medical evidence. As she did not inform the University of the difficulty she was experiencing at the time, the University was not able to provide the appropriate support or offer the necessary advice. The OIA found her complaint that the University had rejected her appeal Not Justified.
Cardiff Metropolitan University
Cardiff Metropolitan University considered a stage one complaint about disability support in the summer of 2011. The University did not uphold the complaint and wrote to the student explaining that he had ten days to submit a written request for a stage two review.
The student did not contact the University regarding this matter until early 2014. The University concluded that he was out of time.
Higher Education Institutions in the UK often take the view that if a student wishes to submit a complaint, or progress a complaint to the next stage of the procedure, he or she should do so within a reasonable timeframe and by the published deadline. Complaints not progressed within the published timeframes cannot then be accepted later on, though sometimes consideration may be given to any valid evidenced reason for the delay. This is standard practice in universities and the OIA does not consider this approach to be unreasonable
The OIA found the complaint Not Justified
Responsibility on universities to document how they have supported students with disabilities
Oxford Brookes University
A student at Oxford Brookes University complained that her request for an extension to a submission deadline under the mitigating circumstances procedures had been rejected. The student had dyslexia but had forgotten to take all her IT equipment on an overseas trip at the time the assignment was due. This meant she did not have access to IT equipment and assistive technology that had been provided by the University.
The notes of the Review Panel provided by the University did not include details of its membership, of what consideration had been given to the findings of the Mitigating Circumstance Panel that had first looked at the case. It was unclear what information relating to the student’s disability, including how her work might have been affected by not being able to use the IT support provided, had been discussed.
The lack of documentation meant the OIA could not satisfy itself that the Panel was properly constituted, that procedures were followed and that the final decision was reasonable. The OIA found the complaint Justified for these reasons and recommended that the student’s mitigating circumstances be referred back to a freshly constituted panel.
University of Oxford
In considering a number of aspects to a complaint brought by a student at the University of Oxford, who had both disability and specific medical conditions, the OIA found that the University could not demonstrate that it had looked at whether medical issues could have affected performance on the day of the examinations. There was no reference in the Examiners’ report to how particular symptoms and side effects of medication, both of which were included in evidence from the student’s doctor, had been taken into account. The OIA found the case Partly Justified and made recommendations including that the University ask the Examiners to reconsider the student’s results in the light of all available medical evidence.
University College London
In considering issues related to discrimination the OIA does not act as a court. It does not investigate or make legal findings in the same manner as a court. However, the OIA does refer to the law and guidance on discrimination to form an opinion as to good practice and to decide whether the University has acted fairly. The OIA considers that when a University becomes aware that a student may have a disability, it should ask itself the following questions:
- Is the student disabled?
- If so, what provisions are we now applying to him/her?
- Do those provisions place him/her at a substantial disadvantage?
- What could be done to prevent that disadvantage?
- Would it be reasonable for us to take those steps?
The OIA found a case Justified where a student at University College London was removed from the course for poor attendance against the terms of his Learning Agreement. At that stage the student presented medical evidence of depressive illness. The University could not demonstrate that, once it was made aware of the diagnosis, it looked at whether illness might have contributed to the student’s poor attendance or whether its processes had put the student at a disadvantage. The OIA recommended financial compensation to the student for distress and recommended that the University rehear his grievance.
City University London
City University was unable to provide evidence that it had taken full account of a student’s late diagnosis of dyslexia in considering her appeal against the marks awarded for her coursework and examination papers. The OIA found that the University had no provision in its Regulations for dealing with late diagnosis.
The OIA found the student’s complaint Justified. It accepted a suggestion from the University that an appropriate remedy would be for the University to review how questions arising from the student’s disability had been addressed during the appeals process. Additionally the OIA recommended that the University review its Regulations to include information on how it deals with late diagnosis of disability.
The OIA found a complaint from a student at Falmouth University Partly Justified because the University could provide only a copy of an email sent to the student’s academic department which gave a list of students with disabilities and generic advice sheets on supporting students with dyslexia and dyspraxia.
Conditions such as dyslexia impact each individual differently and therefore, whilst advice sheets might be generally useful to academic staff, this on its own was not sufficient to demonstrate that reasonable adjustments had been made to prevent the student from being disadvantaged. The OIA found this element of the student’s complaint justified, required the University to apologise and pay compensation for the distress caused, and to review its procedures for the support of students with disabilities.
Responsibility on students to follow procedures
Universities need to ensure that reasonable adjustments for students with disabilities are properly coordinated.
The OIA considered a complaint from a student with a severe visual impairment at the University of Northumbria that she had not been provided with course materials in an accessible format. Her Disabled Student Support Recommendations were that materials were to be provided electronically, in advance, so that her support worker could re-format them to the appropriate size.
The OIA identified a number of failings in the University’s provision of adjustments and its consideration of her complaint, including its failure to ensure that the core textbooks for her degree were made available electronically in a timely manner. The University also failed to recognise until Stage 2 of its complaints procedures that feedback should be provided electronically in typed format, rather than being handwritten on her work. Despite accepting this, the University provided her with handwritten feedback on a subsequent assessment.
The OIA found the complaint Partly Justified. It took the view that the University could and should have done more to provide reasonable adjustments without the student needing to escalate issues through the complaints process. The OIA recommended compensation to the student for distress and that the University review its mechanisms for managing and coordinating the provision of reasonable adjustments.
Students on professional placements
London South Bank University
A student from London South Bank University complained that she had not been provided with appropriate support for her dyslexia while on placement and in assessing her performance in practice- based assessments.
The student declared that she had dyslexia only a few weeks before the end of the placement and did not provide evidence of her dyslexia or her support requirements to the University. As the placement was almost at an end the University put in place adjustments that seemed reasonable in light of the limited information available. The OIA considered this reasonable.
There is no requirement to make adjustments to competence standards and so the student was still required to meet professional competencies, the assessment of which was a professional judgment for the University. The complaint was found Not Justified.
September 2014 - Plagiarism and Academic Misconduct
These cases illustrate different issues to be considered in dealing with allegations of plagiarism and academic misconduct.
The responsibility on students to make sure they are familiar with university regulations
A student at Cranfield University committed plagiarism in one module. The student admitted the offence.
In mitigation the student suggested that changes in the timetabling of assessment of another module had meant that there was not enough time to submit original work.
The OIA noted that the University has a duty to maintain academic standards by addressing misdemeanours in accordance with procedures to ensure that all students are treated on an equal footing. It would have been open to the student to raise concerns at the time and to have sought assistance. Such a course of action would have allowed the University to consider an appropriate response, for example, granting an extension or deferment
University of Bristol
A student at the University of Bristol was accused of extensive plagiarism and a penalty was imposed. The student appealed the decision on the basis that the University had not taken account of the difficulties that he had experienced in adjusting to studying in the United Kingdom. He also stated that the training and information he had received still left him insufficiently educated about academic misconduct.
The OIA was satisfied that the University’s final decision and the penalty imposed were both reasonable and in line with its regulations. The University was able to provide evidence that the student had attended a plagiarism training session, that it had considered the impact of the penalty on the student and that information and guidance on how to avoid plagiarism was readily available to students. It was the student’s responsibility to seek further advice from the University if he was still unsure how to avoid plagiarism after the training. The OIA also noted that the student had not taken the opportunity provided by the University to run his work through the Turnitin software earlier on in his course. The OIA’s decision was that the case was Not Justified.
The importance of clear regulations
University of Exeter
An undergraduate student who had been studying at the University of Exeter for three years had a bundle of unauthorised and relevant notes, and a mobile phone, under his desk during an examination.
The Review Panel members considered all the relevant information, including the student’s statement where he admitted breaching the regulations but explained that he had been late arriving to the examination and had forgotten to leave his notes and mobile phone outside. A penalty, in line with the table of tariffs available for such an offence, was imposed. The student appealed and asked for the penalty to be reduced because he had not intended to cheat.
The University’s regulations were clear and it provided very clear guidance that any notes and phones should be handled to an invigilator before an examination commenced
Part 3 of the University’s Code of Good Practice on Managing Academic Misconduct lists as one example of Severe Academic Misconduct “taking notes into or using any unauthorised device in an examination.” Section 8.3 of the Code then stipulates that: “In considering a case of exam misconduct, the panel will address the case as a strict liability offence. This means that where a student is found to have taken unauthorised material into the exam hall the student is guilty of an offence, irrespective of that student’s intent either to deceive or gain advantage or otherwise.”
Therefore, the issues of why the student had taken the notes and mobile phone to his desk, and whether he had intended to use them, were irrelevant. The OIA found the complaint Not Justified.
University of Liverpool
The OIA received a complaint from a postgraduate student at the University of Liverpool who had taken notes into a resit examination on two occasions, against the University regulations. The Board of Discipline decided to terminate his studies with no further right of resit.
The Board of Appeal refused the right to appeal as the student did not provide any fresh evidence, but did look at the penalty. It concluded that this was ‘not out of line with decisions taken in the previous academic year’. However this was not supported by reports to Senate nor by minutes of earlier Disciplinary Panels which suggested that termination of studies was highly unusual.
The OIA found the case Partly Justified and recommended that the University offer the student a fresh appeal to look at whether the penalty was proportionate to the offence.
Where a student is facing a penalty as serious as a termination of studies, it is essential that the reasons for the decision to impose or uphold that penalty are absolutely clear, and that the decision is demonstrably based on a complete and accurate understanding of the relevant facts.
The University of Manchester
The OIA reviewed a complaint from an MA student at The University of Manchester. The student was found guilty of plagiarism in her written dissertation and, under the Regulations, was allowed to resubmit with a mark to be capped at 50 per cent.
The student accepted the findings of the Academic Malpractice Committee and accepted the penalty. However the University did not inform her until the end of the programme that as a result of the penalty she would not be able to achieve more than a pass classification in her Masters degree.
Whilst the OIA considers it reasonable to expect students to familiarise themselves with the contents of the University’s procedures, in this case the relevant guidance states that students will be informed of the impact of any penalty imposed. The OIA found the student’s complaint Justified and recommended that the University offer the student a fresh hearing. That hearing took place and the penalty was reduced.
Queen Mary University of London
The OIA will not normally look at whether plagiarism has been committed because an assessment of whether a student has plagiarised will normally involve a University's academic judgment. However it can consider whether the University has followed its own procedures correctly and whether there was any unfairness in the way it reached its decision.
A Queen Mary University of London student complained to the OIA after her appeal against the severity of a penalty for plagiarism was rejected. The Chair of the Assessment Offences Panel imposed a more severe penalty than that recommended by the Assistant Academic Registrar.
The University's regulations state that the Chair of the Assessment Offences Panel can act on behalf of the Panel when a student admits to an offence. A decision also needs to be fair and based on good reasoning. In this case, the OIA found that reasons were not provided for the penalty applied, particularly as the penalty was more severe than that recommended by the Assistant Academic Registrar.
The appeal also did not consider the issue of the reasons for the penalty imposed. The OIA found this element of the student's complaint justified and recommended that the University reconsider the student's appeal. The overall decision was Partly Justified.
Extenuating circumstances and academic misconduct
University of Wales Trinity St David
A student at the University of Wales Trinity St David complained after her studies were terminated following plagiarism in a number of modules.
The student had submitted medical evidence which had previously been taken into account in granting extensions to deadlines. The University considered that under its regulations such extenuating circumstances could not be taken into account in dealing with allegations of academic misconduct.
The OIA found the case Not Justified.
Authorship of work
University of Leeds
The OIA sees a number of complaints relating to work that it is suspected was ‘ghosted’ or taken from the internet. It is increasingly common for universities to use viva examinations and analysis where plagiarism is suspected and the OIA does not consider this unreasonable.
In one such case, work submitted by a student at the University of Leeds showed a high match on Turnitin. The student complained to us about a number of aspects of the way the University had challenged him to prove his authorship of the work.
The University was able to demonstrate that its decision to uphold a finding of plagiarism was based on the academic judgment of subject experts. The minutes of the relevant meetings attended by the student recorded clearly that the student had not been able to answer questions about his work or the techniques he had used. The OIA also considered it reasonable that the University had taken into account the supervisor’s view that the work submitted differed entirely in standard, content and title from work that had been previously discussed.
The OIA found the complaint Not Justified.
The University of Salford
The OIA reviewed a complaint from a student at the University of Salford about the way the University had dealt with allegations of academic misconduct and his subsequent appeal. The student was accused of collusion. Part of his complaint was that members of the Academic Misconduct Panel had been made aware of a previous occasion on which he had plagiarised work. This made no difference to the current case as the student admitted the collusion offence.
The OIA found the complaint Not Justified and suggested to the University that it "may wish to consider its approach (the fairness and relevance) to the disclosure of previous findings of academic misconduct against a student where that student is later accused of a further offence. If the University is to present details of previous findings of academic misconduct to a Panel, before a decision is made regarding a further offence, then in our view the University’s regulations should make it clear that a previous offence is relevant, and what exactly it is relevant to." So, for example, the fact that a student had previously been found guilty of plagiarism might be relevant to a subsequent plagiarism allegation, but not to an allegation of collusion.
Imperial College London
Imperial College London changed its procedures to allow a student to bring an appeal that did not fall within the grounds listed in the College’s procedures. While the appeal itself was unsuccessful, leading to the student’s complaint to OIA, the College’s flexibility in adapting its procedures created opportunities for other students in the future.
S was a postgraduate student at Imperial College, London.
S failed the first submission of their thesis and the subsequent resubmission and submitted an appeal against their failure. S argued that their preparation for the resubmission had been disrupted by a computer problem.
S’s appeal did not fall within the grounds listed in the College’s procedures that were in force at the time. The procedures permitted appeals in cases where a candidate’s performance was affected by extenuating circumstances at an oral examination. However S had not been required to undergo an oral examination for the resubmission.
On receipt of S’s appeal, the College modified its appeal procedures to allow for an appeal to be submitted in cases where a candidate’s performance was affected during preparation of their thesis. This meant that S was able to appeal.
The College’s good practice not only advantaged S, but by modifying its procedures rather than simply making an exception for S, the College created opportunities for other students to submit valid grounds of appeal in the future.
If the College had not modified its procedures, S’s appeal would necessarily have been rejected – if S had then complained to the OIA we might have determined that S had been unfairly disadvantaged by the restricted grounds of appeal. In such a scenario we might have recommended that the College rehear S’s appeal, permitting an appeal to be made on the grounds that S’s performance had been affected by extenuating circumstances during preparation of his/her thesis. We might also have recommended that the College modify its procedures in the way that it did. The College’s good practice prevented any need for a complaint about this issue, which would have cost S, the College and the OIA time and resources to resolve.
The appeal was ultimately unsuccessful, and S complained to the OIA. S believed that the Appeal Committee which heard the appeal had exceeded its remit, and had expected too much in relation to the actions S should have taken to resolve S’s computer problem.
OIA Decision and reasons
The OIA found the complaint Not Justified. We considered that the evidence showed that the Appeal Committee had acted within its remit as set out in the College’s procedures.
The Appeal Committee had stated its expectation with respect to S’s computer problem that ‘a [postgraduate] student would demonstrate the ability and initiative to solve this problem swiftly, taking ownership of the issue and not letting it run for such a protracted length of time’. We noted that universities commonly expect students to develop the independence to take responsibility for their learning, and that this expectation is often heightened with respect to postgraduate students. In this case, we considered the College’s expectations of S to have been reasonable.
London South Bank University
The OIA upheld a case brought by a student of the University where it was found that:
1. The University’s procedures for dealing with extenuating circumstances claims were inconsistent.
2. The University was unable to demonstrate that it had taken full consideration of the student’s disability.
The student (S) was studying for a full-time, undergraduate degree in law with London South Bank University (‘the University’). S failed several modules and the relevant Examination Board determined that he/she should repeat four modules (with attendance) in the following academic year; two of these were to be ‘uncapped’ first sits (due to accepted extenuating circumstances), while the remaining two were subject to a 40% cap. S appealed this decision but this appeal was not upheld by the University. S consequently brought a complaint to the OIA, citing the University’s inadequate consideration of S’s disclosure of dyslexia and its rejection of extenuating circumstances which had been accepted for the first two modules.
S had submitted an extenuating circumstances claim in respect of two failed modules which had been accepted, and as a result was awarded uncapped first resits. In the appeal, S had argued that the same circumstances had affected the other two modules, but S had failed to bring this to the University’s attention at the time.
OIA Decision and reasons
Under London South Bank University’s regulations in force at the time, there was no deadline for submitting extenuating circumstances claims; claims submitted after the Examination Board met should have been forwarded to its Chair for consideration. Conversely, there were no grounds for appeal on the basis of extenuating circumstances in the regulations.The issues S had raised regarding extenuating circumstances were therefore considered under the wrong procedure, according to the University’s published regulations.
In reviewing these issues, the OIA has regard not only to whether the written procedure was closely followed, but whether the procedural irregularities would have materially disadvantaged the student. If the irregularity has not disadvantaged the student or prejudiced consideration of their appeal, then the complaint may be dismissed.
In S’s case, the appeal panel had misunderstood S’s claim to be relating to the two modules for which extenuation had already been granted, rather than the two capped modules. Furthermore, the OIA recognises the importance of dealing with like claims consistently, particularly for assessing extenuating circumstances. Given that the University’s regulations did not prohibit late extenuating circumstances claims all such claims should have been considered in a consistent process by officers in the same or similar positions.
The OIA therefore found this part of S’s complaint to be Justified. In coming to this decision, the OIA considered the merits of S’s case in light of the University’s regulations to see if there was any manifest reason why S’s claim would be bound to fail upon reconsideration by the Chair of the Examination Board; had this been the case then we may have decided not to refer the matter back for reconsideration. However there was nothing to prevent the Chair from upholding S’s claim, if he or she accepted the extenuating circumstances. The OIA’s Recommendation was that the case be considered afresh by the University using the correct procedure set out in its regulations.
S also complained to the OIA regarding London South Bank University’s consideration of dyslexia. This was only diagnosed after the results in question had been published; the University determined that S was only entitled to reasonable adjustments from this point onwards and that there could be no retrospective effect on the marks awarded. S’s complaint to the OIA explained that he/ she was not seeking for marks to be uplifted retrospectively, but for the University to consider lifting the cap on the resits in light of the subsequent diagnosis.
The OIA supported the University’s position that there was no general obligation to retrospectively raise marks or apply reasonable adjustments. However once S disclosed a disability during the appeals process, the University did need to demonstrate that it had turned its mind to the nature and consequence of S’s disability, and consider whether S may be disadvantaged as a result and whether this should be mitigated. The questions of whether and how a student may have been disadvantaged in particular forms of assessment is a matter of professional judgment for an educational psychologist or medical professional; the Examination Board’s obligation is to consider whether its decision ought to be adjusted in light of that judgment, for example by adjusting its normal provision that resits should be offered.
In S’s case, there was no evidence that the University had considered whether S had been disadvantaged as a result of a disability and whether it could or should seek to prevent that disadvantage by reviewing the Examination Board’s decision. This aspect of the complaint was therefore also found to be justified.
The OIA recommended that S’s late extenuating circumstances claim and disability appeal be reconsidered by the appropriate persons within the University, as if for the first time and by persons with no prior knowledge of or involvement in S’s case. The University could apply any outcome provided for in its regulations to these issues.
The University showed good practice in:
1. Setting clear deadlines for the submission of appeals and publicising these widely to students.
2. Making clear and upholding its expectations of students to familiarise themselves with deadlines.
S was registered on a Masters degree programme at Northumbria University. The programme required students to obtain a certain number of credits to be awarded the degree or another award. Students must pass modules in order to accumulate credits. Students are permitted two attempts at passing each module.
In 2010, S was required to undertake a second attempt at a module examination. There was some delay in the examination being held, but it eventually took place in June 2010. S sat and failed the examination and therefore had insufficient credits to be awarded a Masters degree. At an Examination Board meeting in September 2010, the decision was taken that S should not be permitted a further attempt at the module and that S had sufficient credits to be awarded a Postgraduate Diploma.
Under the University’s Student Regulations, students are entitled to submit appeals against decisions of Examination Boards. Such appeals must normally be lodged within 20 working days of the meeting of the Examination Board subject to the appeal. Appeals received after this period are only accepted in exceptional circumstances. Students are also entitled to submit service complaints to the University within three months of the incident in question.
In October 2011 S wrote to the University expressing a grievance about the examination result. S said that the examination had been delayed owing to error on the University’s part and that S had been distracted by noise in the examination room. S said that the Examination Board’s decision was unfair as S had accrued a number of credits previously. S stated that he/she was aware of the University’s rules but felt that he/she nevertheless had compelling reasons to be granted a further attempt at the examination.
The University contacted S to explain its timeframes for the submission of appeals and complaints and invited S to explain why he/she had not submitted either an appeal or complaint within these timeframes. S replied by saying that nobody had drawn attention to the right to appeal until the summer of 2011, that S was unfamiliar with the UK’s higher education system and that S had been so upset by examination failure that he/she had not wished to discuss the results with anyone other than work and family friends.
The University’s decision
In February 2012 the University decided that S was considerably beyond the timeframe for raising either an appeal or complaint and therefore declined to consider the case. The University said that, whilst it appreciated that S was frustrated at nearly obtaining the required credits for a Masters degree, its regulations were clear and had been properly followed. It explained that its regulations were referred to during induction and that the Students’ Union also advertises the regulations. The University said that it did not consider ignorance of the rights afforded by the regulations to be a good and valid reason for submitting an appeal thirteen months after the Examination Board’s decision.
S submitted a Complaint Form to the OIA in May 2012. This repeated the points which S had made to the University and also said that, whilst S was aware of the University’s rules and timeframes, he/she wished for the context of the failed examination to be considered.
The OIA’s Decision and reasons
The OIA determined that S’s complaint was Not Justified.
The OIA considers it to be good practice for higher education institutions to set time limits for appeal and complaint procedures and to apply them consistently in the interests of fairness to all students. The OIA considered the University’s regulations to have been clear as to its relevant timeframes and S’s case was lodged substantially late. Although the OIA was unable to determine whether the regulations had been specifically referred to at S’s induction, it was apparent that the regulations were available from a variety of other sources, as indeed was advice and guidance. The OIA considered it reasonable for the University to expect its students to familiarise themselves with its regulations and to adhere to them when bringing an appeal or complaint. It was open to S to have sought guidance as to the regulations and available options at any point and, in particular, once the decision of the Examination Board had been issued – there was no evidence of S doing so. There was evidence that S had been aware of the regulations, even though he/she claimed not to have been in some correspondence.
The OIA decided that the University had acted reasonably in finding S’s case to have been brought out of time and without an exceptional reason for it to have been considered so long after the Examination Board’s decision.