Three reasons why academic appeals fail

Barrister Daniel Sokol explains some of the key mistakes made by those advising students on academic appeals

April 8, 2018

Student advisers fulfil a vital role in helping students to appeal against the decisions of their university, from exclusions for cheating to academic results.

Often, they are the student’s only support in what feels like a contest between David and Goliath, with the referee as Goliath’s mother.

Many advisers provide sound and practical advice. In my work as an appeal lawyer, however, I have seen recurrent errors by advisers. Here I discuss three common mistakes.

Missing good arguments

Students, even doctoral candidates, cannot be expected to identify all the good arguments in their case. They do not have the requisite knowledge.

Student advisers should be able to identify most of them; lawyers all of them.

To illustrate, an international student was accused of plagiarism. His defence was that he did not intend to cheat. The university’s regulations state that plagiarism does not require an intention to cheat.

The student had a long meeting with the student adviser and subsequently exchanged several emails with him. The adviser’s conclusion was that an appeal was doomed to fail.

When the student came to us, we asked him for all the guidance about plagiarism that he had received. He produced slides from a recent lecture given by the head of school. One of those slides presented a different definition of plagiarism, one that required an “intention to deceive”. The existence of two contradictory definitions was a strong argument for the student. We argued that the definition most favourable to the student should be used.

This argument was missed by the student adviser because he did not dig deep enough. He did not ask the right question: what were you told about plagiarism by the university?

In another example, a PhD student was withdrawn from the university shortly before the submission of her thesis. The reason was insufficient academic progress. She approached the students’ union and told the adviser that, although she had failed to submit drafts to her supervisors on several occasions, she had been unaware that she could be withdrawn for this.

The student showed the adviser a section in the regulations that required the university to send written warnings prior to withdrawing students. None was sent. The adviser failed to appreciate the strength of the argument and focused on other, much weaker, points. In a later appeal, the student succeeded on the very argument deemed hopeless by the adviser.

Including weak arguments

In a recent failed PhD case, the student came to my office with a long document containing 15 arguments for her appeal. One included: “I was put off in the oral examination because the examiners had left some fruit and sandwiches behind them, and I could clearly see that throughout the viva.” She had no eating disorder and no relevant medical condition.

I advised her to drop the point. “But the student adviser told me to keep it in!” she replied. “She told me to keep all the points in.” I advised her to keep three and to ditch the other 12, which lacked any merit.

The inclusion of weak points undermines the credibility of the student, irritates the decision-maker, and dilutes the potency of the strong points.

It also tempts universities to address the weak points in their response and to pay scant attention to the strong ones.

Lack of involvement during hearings

A common gripe by students is that the adviser acted as little more than an observer at the hearing. That is fine when all is going smoothly and victory is more or less assured.

It is unacceptable, however, when you sense that the case is slipping through your fingers. You must pay close attention to the faces of the panellists, their body language, what they note down and, most importantly, their questions. The questions are a window into their thinking.

If what you see through the window is unfavourable to the student, you must find a way to persuade the panellist to change his or her mind.

If the panellist asks the student a question to which the student gives a poor answer, you must identify the strongest response and jump in: “It may assist the panel if I supplement John’s response by pointing out two unchallenged facts…”

There are, unfortunately, primitive institutions that allow the student only a “supporter” who can say virtually nothing during the hearing.

The idiocy of this system was apparent at a hearing with the unhappy combination of an international student with dreadful English, appearing via Skype, and a panel with no understanding of the issue at hand.

In this situation, for much of the time I felt like a man paralysed under anaesthesia but sensate to every cut of the surgeon’s knife.

I asked for permission to communicate with the student via WhatsApp and got him to ask the panel members the exact question that they had to answer. I interjected as often as I could get away with.

Students’ unions should fight tooth and nail to change the system of silent “supporters” to allow advisers to contribute to hearings.

The other lesson here is that you should know the case, and the documents, inside out so that you can immediately spot factual inaccuracies.

Correcting those mistakes courteously will not only help the panel but will reflect positively on your ability.

Daniel Sokol is a barrister and founder of Alpha Academic Appeals.

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