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Facing internal university procedures? Don't panic - read this

7th January 2014

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If you are lucky, most of you will go through your university life without ever experiencing any form of internal university procedure. You will never have cause to appeal an academic grade/mark, you will never need to defend yourself when the university accuses you of academic misconduct (which can be anything from fabrication of results to plagiarism), your university will never attempt to throw you off the course because they deem you unfit, you will never have cause to complain, you will never need the university to give you some leeway because something significant has happened in your life and you will plod along at university just fine.

Unfortunately, for a number of you life is just not going to be that simple. When internal procedures occur the balance of power can be heavily weighted in favour of the university, which can result in a student feeling pressured to accept the decision of the university.

Should you be thrust into the world of internal university procedures, you will get a crash course in university Rules, Regulations and Policies, all there to make life just that little more complicated. The various rules and policies governing the submission of academic appeals, academic misconduct appeals, extenuating/mitigating circumstances, or complaints can be pretty complex. That, together with short deadlines, set by the university, to submit such appeals can make even the savviest of students feel overwhelmed. Imagine then, if you are an international student and English is not even your first language?  It does not make for a pleasant process to be caught up in.

Let’s take the example of the student accused of plagiarism. I should say at this point that plagiarism can occur in so many forms and on occasion without the student even knowing, but that’s a different topic altogether… Back to the student. They were brought in for an “informal” chat with their tutor. Told that the university suspected them of plagiarising an assignment and that they will probably be awarded a zero as that is a breach of the Misconduct Regulations. The tutor produced a Turnitin report (yep that dreaded report) and placed it in front of the student. The student then had 10 days to appeal the decision. The first time the student even read the Misconduct Regulations was following the meeting with the tutor. So, was the “informal chat” with the tutor the formal decision? And where was the formal written decision detailing the exact allegations, or was that the role of the Turnitin report? The student had 10 days to understand the Misconduct Regulations, the Turnitin report and to write a well-structured appeal explaining why the assignment was not plagiarised. The student is also expected to attend (and concentrate) on lecturers, seminars and tutorials.

A student left on their own to deal with this may not highlight the severe procedural errors on the part of the university. It is not uncommon for universities to fail to follow their own Regulations and if students do not challenge them, then who keeps tabs on the university? Students are often left feeling vulnerable and reluctant to fight the might of the university.

What about the students that go before the various internal Appeals Panels (Hearings set up by universities for students to argue their case)? Let’s not forget the internal hearings themselves; “sure your legal advisor can come” says the Panel Secretary three days prior to the hearing. “Oh no sorry, the Chair of the Panel Hearing says your legal advisor is not allowed in the room” says the Panel Secretary on the day of the hearing. “You will have to represent yourself” she says, as she thrusts the bewildered student into the room only to be greeted by a Panel of five senior academics/lecturers from five different faculties - good friends I wonder? How does that sound for internal university procedures that can potentially impact your academic future? This sort of behaviour goes against every legal principle.

Seriously, the examples above happen all too often during internal procedures and not just with plagiarism cases, we are talking academic misconduct, mitigating/extenuating circumstances, academic appeals, Fitness to Practice and general student complaints.

Let me be clear, I am not saying that all instances of internal procedures at universities are unfair; some universities try hard to ensure that a student is given the best chance to protect their position. However, like any major organisation, they are not always going to get it right.

So what should you do?

It is important for students to feel empowered and knowledgeable enough to fight if they ever find themselves in such situations. First thing to do is make sure you know the deadlines; if you need to appeal the deadline for appealing can be very short, if it is too short for you to collate all your evidence seek an extension. If the university does not agree to an extension then state in your appeal that further evidence is pending. Understand the grounds under which you can appeal, make your appeal relevant to those grounds. Anything your tutor/lecturer says to you informally about the matter, treat it as formal. Write it down and email them the conversation so that a record exists. Scrutinise the Regulations, make sure that the university follows each stage fairly and when the university does finally give you a written decision, make sure that valid reasons exist; they cannot simply say your appeal was rejected.

This article was written by Sukhvir Gill, a Higher Education Law Solicitor for Charles and Co Solicitors. Sukhvir deals solely with Higher Education matters and represents students involved with internal university procedures. If you have any questions or want more advice tweet her at @CandCoEdLaw or contact her on Facebook at /CandCoEdLaw or simply the old fashioned way

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