Union rejects grievance plan

January 28, 2000

Students have dismissed Cambridge University's belated plans to establish a complaints procedure as "fundamentally unfair" and a "terrible lost opportunity".

A university working group has outlined plans to ensure that Cambridge, one of the few universities with no formal procedure for dealing with student complaints and appeals, meets best practice standards, as demanded by the government.

The group, chaired by Baroness O'Neill, principal of Newham College, recommends creation of a powerful examinations review committee and an "internal but independent" commissary as final arbiter of complaints and appeals.

But the Cambridge Students Union says the proposals do not go far enough. In a report it cautiously welcomed the university's "willingness to consider changes to the system", and has said that setting up a more formal system "is a virtue in itself".

But the union is concerned at the O'Neill group's failure to address the ancient and "inadequate" award of "deemed to have deserved honours" (DDH), a compensatory category of award given to successful appellants.

"Declaring a candidate DDH does not represent an adequate remedy," said the student union. "A candidate so declared does not possess a degree, which can present problems in later years. Moreover, a DDH gives no indication of a candidate's ability."

The student union added: "It would be a terrible lost opportunity if the appeals system was reformed with no reform of DDH. We feel that the shortcomings of DDH are so apparent and so dramatic that the exam appeals system cannot be considered reformed until an alternative solution has been found."

The students were happier about the examinations review committee, which would deal with complaints about marking, looking at cases of non-clerical procedural error and allegations of incompetent, biased or prejudicial marking.

It would be able to call for a remark of an exam and offer a re-sit. The students said that, although they were disappointed that the committee would not include external or student representatives and that complaints could be brought only by a tutor, they welcomed the change.

They were less happy that the applications committee, which deals with cases of misfortune, such as a student illness or a bereavement, will be left largely unchanged.

Baroness O'Neill said disappointment was premature, as the consultation process was not complete. "We are still seeking views on the plans and they are not cut and dried," she said.

The commissary is key to the plans. Cambridge does not have a visitor to act as final arbiter of staff and student complaints.

A consultation paper has already been published and staff will discuss the plans next week.

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