Watchdog shows its teeth and awards compensation

November 26, 2004

The student complaints watchdog has confounded critics who predicted its bark would be worse than its bite by ordering universities to pay compensation to students in all three of the appeals it has upheld so far.

Revealing a surprising willingness to hold universities to account for even relatively minor procedural slip-ups, Dame Ruth Deech, the Independent Adjudicator for Higher Education, confirmed this week that she had recommended that one graduate be paid £400 because of her university's "confused" internal procedures.

A student who admitted plagiarism was awarded £50 because his university had failed to follow its own procedures in dealing with the allegations against him, despite his admission of guilt.

Dame Ruth has also ordered a payment of £100 in a third case that she upheld on procedural grounds. So far, seven cases have been formally concluded.

The award of financial compensation was almost unheard of under the ancient visitor system, which the Office of the Independent Adjudicator replaced in March.

Gary Attle, partner at specialist education law firm Mills and Reeve, said the apparent willingness to offer financial compensation made a bold statement. Under the old system, the courts had made such awards only rarely, and there was very little case law on how to quantify financial loss.

"It looks like she wants to put down some markers," he said. "It will be very interesting to see how she quantifies financial compensation in bigger cases."

In one of the three cases upheld, a university rejected a student's appeal against the award of an upper-second degree instead of a first. The OIA found that the university had treated the student "inequitably" by denying her the chance to take a module other students had been allowed to take. It found that there had been "confusion surrounding the question whether or not extenuating circumstances could be taken into account in deciding the degree".

The OIA said there was no case for reconsidering the classification, but it recommended that the university redraft its regulations on extenuating circumstances as well as pay £400 compensation.

In another case, a student who admitted plagiarism in his final year complained that his punishment - a zero mark with the chance to repeat the year from scratch - was too harsh, as it did not take into account his extenuating circumstances.

The OIA ordered the university to pay £50 compensation because it did not follow its published procedures in handling the initial plagiarism allegations.

In the third successful case, a student who had won an appeal against a decision to prevent him progressing to the next year of his course was awarded £100.

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