When Faiz Siddiqui decided to sue the University of Oxford because he said it was its fault that he had not got a first in history 16 years earlier in 2000, there was widespread surprise when he was given permission to take the matter to a full hearing.
He insisted that it was also Oxford’s fault that his plans for his subsequent career had been relatively unsuccessful compared with his peers and that he had suffered lasting psychological damage. It was all down to “negligently inadequate teaching”, he claimed.
Higher education providers waited for the final outcome with some concern. If he succeeded, it was to be expected that a litigious queue would form. Students would seek compensation. They had failed or not got a first? Sue. They had not got a job? Sue. They had not got a sufficiently well-paid job? Sue. They were depressed? Sue.
The ex-student had his full hearing in November and December last year and, on 7 February, he learned that he had lost.
The judgment is a very good read indeed, bringing the whole debate about “teaching excellence” back from the foggy distance of the proxy indicators in use for the teaching excellence framework to what should actually happen in the intellectual encounter between provider and student in higher education.
The claimant had decided to make his bid for compensation only when, in 2013, he discovered that another student on his course had made a complaint in July 2000. She claimed that although she had chosen to write individually, her “grievances were widely shared by other people on the course”. She did not give evidence in the recent case, but others did. None of them was found to share her concerns, or to have done so at the time.
This student had got a first so she was claiming that she had suffered only in the quality of her “experience”, and that her sole concern was that university should make improvements for the benefit of others.
A key question was how much independent work students should put in. It all turned on an examination in which students were presented with short extracts from set texts and asked to comment on them.
The 2000 complainant said she had been “very much looking forward to using documentary evidence” but she had found that she had “to spend a disproportionate amount of time preparing this paper for my final examinations”. This she put down to “particularly inadequate” coverage of the set documents in “taught classes”.
Those teaching on the course “said that the students were told constantly to read the said texts for themselves” and to do so “was ‘the absolute bedrock core’ for the subject”.
In evidence for the university it was pointed out that “a major aspect of pedagogy at this stage in a degree course was for the students to read and study the materials themselves”. The judge commented that “it does seem to me to be clear that anyone who chose not to read the whole reading list was inevitably ‘taking a chance’ on what might appear in the examination paper”. The two students who did read it all had got firsts.
The barrister representing the student suing now asserted “that it is ‘axiomatic’ that better teaching provision would, on the balance of probabilities, have resulted in a better performance”. The judge disagreed. He cited the student’s tutor, who had said in his report for Trinity term 2000 that “his grades will be principally determined by the discipline with which he addresses the question”.
The university stressed that for this particular paper “students needed to develop an extremely structured and methodical approach”. The preparatory documents classes “were designed to help students ‘to perfect an art form of a very distinctive kind which would allow them to demonstrate their abilities as historians’”. Students often found this difficult because they were “more used to essay writing” and here they were “required to respond immediately to a passage presented to them”. The student who wrote her criticisms in 2000 had claimed that she was not given enough “assistance on what was required to give a full answer” and her practice attempts had not been marked.
The problem of inadequate staffing is increasingly familiar. Two of the lecturers who would normally have covered the teaching for this paper were absent on leave, creating an inordinate pressure on the remaining specialist teaching staff. The judge asked himself “whether there was a falling below reasonable standards of tuition in 1999-2000 by reference to what had gone before, albeit adopting a cautious approach to ensure that I am not imposing the equivalent of a ‘counsel of perfection’ on the teaching standard required”.
He took into account the fact that, in the case of the student who had written criticisms, “the impression of all those who knew her at the time was that she was ‘very demanding’”. She had indeed been found to be looking for a course tailor-made to herself and her own approach.
It is to be hoped that the new minister and the architects of the TEF will all read this judgment as closely as it deserves. It would be a pity of they “took a chance” on their performance when they are judged by history.
Gill R. Evans is emeritus professor of medieval theology and intellectual history at the University of Cambridge.