Children of Major reveal litigious side

March 3, 1995

There are no hard and fast statistics to prove it, and until a Government agency starts collecting the data, it is likely to remain a gut feeling. Nevertheless, many people working in the postgraduate field think that the number of students appealing against examiners' decisions is rising.

Jamie Darwen, general secretary of the National Postgraduate Committee, suggests the growing number of postgraduates, last year up by more than 50 per cent on 1988/89, explains much of the increase.

Simeon Underwood, an education consultant and former assistant registrar at York University, points to the "more litigious nature of John Major's Britain where we are encouraged to complain". There is also the fact that students are increasingly investing their savings to pay for courses, so they are less ready to remain quiet about poor quality.

If this trend is alarming for institutions, it is also alarming for students. Appeals procedures, where they exist, often vary from institution to institution.

In the mid-1980s, there was an attempt to remedy this rather chaotic state of affairs when Philip Reynolds, former vice chancellor at Lancaster University, was asked by the Committee of Vice Chancellors and Principals to report on academic standards. The 1986 report included a chapter on appeals procedures at postgraduate research degree level, a recognition that the requirements of the postgraduate and the undergraduate are substantially different. For students thinking of appealing, the Reynolds report is the bible. It gives the legitimate grounds of appeal - circumstances affecting performance which the examiners did not know about, procedural irregularities in the conduct of the examination, and evidence of prejudice or bias on the part of the examiners. And it gives the method of appeal.

Unfortunately, several universities did not follow the recommendations, including Aston and Cambridge. Aston said the Reynolds guidelines were considered "a bit woolly". The definition of bias was "not specific enough", and lawyers had advised that the decision of an academic board of examiners cannot be legally challenged.

Nine years after Reynolds, Aston still has no plans to implement the recommendations. But Cambridge has changed its mind, and since last October the appeals procedure has been formalised to take account of Reynolds. Duncan McCallum, secretary of the board of graduate studies, said the university now realises that it is important "that justice is not only done but seen to be done".

Reynolds was revised in the the late 1980s. For instance, alleged inadequacy of supervision had not been recognised as grounds of appeal, but is now recognised in "exceptional" circumstances.

But there are those among the expanding and increasingly vociferous postgraduate community who argue that the Reynolds procedures could yet be improved. The National Postgraduate Committee is preparing guidelines, and expects to publish them after the consultation period ends in May.

The guidelines make poor supervision a more substantial ground for appeal than Reynolds, even in its revised form. The NPC thinks it should be possible to lodge an appeal if "the supervision during the course was unsatisfactory to the point that the student's performance was seriously affected". It adds that the existence of complaints procedures to which postgraduates can go during their study is not in itself a reason to dismiss an appeal because "students are not always able to assess the competence of their supervision at an early stage, and so deficiencies may only come to light as a result of the examination".

Another issue is the detailed procedure for conducting an appeal. Reynolds makes no recommendations about either the structural mechanisms which should be in place or the time scale. The NPC guidelines say there should be an appeals committee comprising a student representative, an administrator, an appeals officer and an academic representative of another university. It also details the time that should be devoted to each stage of the appeal, from when a student declares the intention to appeal (within 28 days of the result) to the moment of the full hearing (within six months of the result).

The NPC guidelines are careful not to over-protect students, making clear that the successful appeal will in most cases mean that they can resubmit an improved thesis rather than walk away with a "pass" certificate. But even when the guidelines are published, they will remain guidelines, and universities will be able to take them or leave them as they please.

Unless, of course, Government takes an interest. The Higher Education Quality Council, which received 18 (out of 100) postgraduate complaints between 1993 and 1994 (not all about appeals), has commissioned an internal review into the appeals process. Author Simeon Underwood, articulating a widely-held view, said the idea of an obligatory appeals procedure was "pie in the sky but deeply desirable".

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