A student recently told me that he had been denied an opportunity to appeal a decision of the university because the appeal had been lodged two days late. In my experience, such an inflexible approach by higher education institutions in dealing with student appeals and complaints is not uncommon.
The courts, when determining whether to grant what they call “relief from sanction” when a litigant has breached a court-imposed rule, apply a three-stage test. The judges ask themselves “How serious or significant is the failure to comply with the rule?” then “Why did the default occur?” and finally “In all the circumstances of the case, what is the just thing to do?”
Universities should adopt a similar, common-sense approach to the rule breaches of students. Given the high stakes, preventing a student from appealing a degree result because of a very short delay is unlikely to be just.
The irony, of course, is that universities often fulfil their obligations to students late, such as making decisions or giving results.
The Office of the Independent Adjudicator has published its Good Practice Framework for disciplinary procedures and handling student complaints and appeals. In both situations they advise that the process should be completed within 90 calendar days of the start of the formal process.
In my opinion, 90 days – which is a long time in the life of a student – is a generous limit, even taking into account the administrative burdens and inefficiencies of higher education institutions.
Despite this, some universities regularly fail to hit the 90-day limit. This causes and prolongs distress in students, who usually await the outcome with eager anticipation and feel that they cannot move on until they know the result of their appeal. By the time they receive an outcome, many students have lost out in some way, such as missed opportunities to study elsewhere or to gain employment.
One international student returned to the university campus and at great personal cost stayed in a bed and breakfast for weeks until the resolution of his appeal. It is the proverbial case of “justice delayed is justice denied”.
So what penalties are imposed on universities when they miss the OIA’s 90-day deadline? Most of the time, none. Some students complain and are given excuses about staff leaving, busy schedules, holidays, assessments and so on. Surely, though, the OIA’s 90-day limit takes into account those common factors? In my view, universities should only be permitted to go beyond the 90-day limit if they can show that there were extraordinary circumstances that could not have been prevented despite taking reasonable measures.
In a published case study, the OIA criticised a university for taking 11 months to deal with a student’s appeal. The penalty to reflect the student’s distress and inconvenience caused by the delay was £300.
The precise facts of the case are not provided but such a measly sanction is unlikely to serve as a disincentive for slow-moving universities. Appealing a decision, or undergoing a disciplinary procedure, is already a profoundly stressful experience for many students. Their future may depend on the outcome. Universities should do their best to resolve the matter in a timely fashion. If they are unable to do so then they should keep students informed about the progress of their case. They should offer proper compensation to students for any unreasonable delay.
An unjustified refusal by the institution to offer fair compensation should be met with a higher level of compensation for distress and inconvenience at the OIA stage.
Finally, the OIA should increase the penalties for delays and make them punitive rather than, frankly, symbolic. The fine should hurt. Only then will institutions take heed of the 90-day limit and students spared the frustration and injustice of unreasonable delay.
Daniel Sokol is a barrister and founder of Alpha Academic Appeals.