Public Interest Cases

Procedural Issues - Fairness; Clarity of procedures; Following procedures - January 2015

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.

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Glyndwr University

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

Cardiff University

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.

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Keele University

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.

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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.

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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.

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Swansea University

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.

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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

Durham University

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.