Failed medic lost appeal

July 12, 1996

Students pay towards their higher education and want value for money. THES reporters look at the university appeals system and what happens when degree courses are not all they were advertised to be. Robert Jones was a medical student at Birmingham University who was thrown out at the end of his third year after failing a clinical surgery examination that he says was unfairly conducted. The two other students examined with him had, unknown to the examiner, been taught the previous week on the patient used in the exam. They passed, he failed.

These events took place eight years ago. They led to a long-running dispute between Mr Jones's parents and the university, which entailed an appeal hearing and a complaint to the university's Visitor, the Privy Council, acting for the Queen, the final court of appeal for students.

David and Mair Jones, a lecturer at Neath tertiary college and a former comprehensive school teacher respectively, believe their son deserved the right to resit the exam. Their appeals got them nowhere, which is why they have now circulated a report of the case to all university vice chancellors, medical schools and student union presidents. They claim the Privy Council was not sufficiently independent. "The Visitor is the only avenue of appeal open to an aggrieved student," they say.

The story starts in 1988 when Mr Jones, at the end of his third year of a degree in medicine, found himself excluded from the university on grounds of poor performance. He appealed. First, he explained he had been ill early in the year. This was corroborated by the university doctor. Second, he complained that the clinical surgery examination had been unfairly conducted because the two other students were acquainted with the patient.

Third, the grades awarded for the final medical ward assessment were not interpreted as the consultants had intended - with the result that Mr Jones failed. Fourth, a pathology grade favourable to him had been missing from the papers presented to the academic progress committee, which made the final decision about him.

That first appeal was dismissed. Dr and Mrs Jones wrote to the university challenging it. A three-man committee looked at the facts and decided the case should be reheard by the medical school. The Joneses argued that it was contrary to natural justice for the school to be judge in its own case. In August 1989, a medical committee upheld the decision to exclude Mr Jones.

Having exhausted internal remedies, the family petitioned the Visitor in November 1989. In June 1991, the Privy Council announced it was referring the case to an independent assessor. Lord Walton, former dean of the General Medical Council and a former medical school president, was appointed. He supported the university, but said Mr Jones should have been allowed to repeat the third year.

The Jones's wrote to the Privy Council asking to know Lord Walton's terms of reference. He had none, the council said. He was simply asked to advise the Visitor.

The Jones have emerged from the whole process with little confidence in the way the Privy Council acts as Visitor. They also object to the fact that Lord Walton and the then dean of Birmingham medical school knew one another.

Furthermore, the Privy Council nominee on the council of the university was chairman of the university council Sir Julian Bullard, a fellow of All Souls College, Oxford. Sir Julian said his nomination had no bearing on the case.

Lord Walton agreed that he knew all the deans of medical schools but said that it was reasonable to approach a former dean who knew about the system. A spokesman for Birmingham University, said everything had been said about the case. "This matter is long since closed," he said. "Every avenue was exhausted up to Privy Council and the university was seen to act properly throughout."

Nigel Nicholls, clerk to the Privy Council, declined to discuss details. "The case was treated in the normal way," he said. Most petitioners were turned down by the council because in most cases universities had followed their statutes and procedures.

Mr Jones moved to Aston University where he achieved an upper second degree in pharmacy.

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