Appeal of appeals firm: it’s not just money-making, says founder

Medical ethics academic and company founder defends controversial business. Chris Parr reports

August 8, 2013

An academic who founded a company that charges between £500 and £1,000 for assistance in appealing against university grading decisions has defended the enterprise against allegations it is profiteering from students’ fears.

Daniel Sokol, a barrister and honorary senior lecturer in medical ethics and law at King’s College London, set up Alpha Academic Appeals last year, which offers legal advice to students who “have recently failed an exam but wish to appeal the decision”.

Cases range from undergraduates who have failed an academic year to doctoral students who have spent years writing theses only to be told that they do not come up to scratch. Although law firms have offered advice to students on educational matters before, Alpha Academic Appeals appears to be one of the first in the UK set up specifically to target those unhappy with their university exam results.

Speaking to Times Higher Education, Dr Sokol – who also works as a magician and is a columnist for the British Medical Journal – denied that his company was encouraging a litigious culture in the academy and capitalising on the fears of students in the high fees age.

“They are not children – they are adults and they can make decisions,” he said. “[In some cases] they’ve spent five years of their life on their PhD and, quite bluntly, they feel they’ve been screwed by their university because their adviser completely ignored them, or they think there’s been some bias in the examination process, or an examiner had no experience of assessing PhDs.

“If they decide it is sufficiently important for them to go to a professional and pay some money for it, then in my view that’s their decision. I don’t think it is profiteering at all.”

He conceded that academic colleagues had told him in private that they believed the company to be a “terrible idea” that might encourage a sense of entitlement among students who are paying thousands of pounds. Such people, he said, seem to believe that university assessors “never make mistakes”.

Rachel Wenstone, the National Union of Students’ vice-president (higher education), said the service encouraged a more litigious approach from aggrieved students that could leave universities feeling like “American hospitals – terrified of people suing them”.

“Students’ unions offer very good advice and they offer it for free. Any …monetisation around student appeals is only going to be damaging for those who can’t afford to access it,” she added.

Dr Sokol said he always recommended that clients first contact their students’ union, but added that many “say that they have already been and it hasn’t been very helpful”.

“It’s not just a money-making exercise,” he added. “I help students …articulate what they want to say in a persuasive and compelling way for a fee. What’s wrong with that?”

A spokeswoman for King’s said that the university “in no way endorses Alpha Academic Appeals”.

She added that it had asked Dr Sokol to remove a mention of his association with the institution from the company’s website.

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